White River Junction VA Has ‘Tools’ for Vets With PTSD

By:  Chris Fleisher

Valley News Masthead

White River Junction — An increasing amount of the support veterans receive to cope with mental trauma is coming through their smartphones, laptops and tablets as the Department of Veterans Affairs looks for new ways to help people recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Among the latest efforts is a website called PTSD Coach Online, in which both veterans and those who have not served in the military can seek help with managing sleep problems, anxiety, anger and other symptoms.

Developed at the National Center for PTSD in White River Junction, the website features 17 online “tools” with strategies and tips from experts. It builds on a popular mobile app that has been downloaded more than 100,000 times since it launched in spring 2011. The online version offers greater depth of information and has had 25,000 page views since it went live in September.

The center’s experts say these kinds of “telehealth” tools are helping health care providers overcome barriers of physical distance and offer supplemental support to traditional types of mental health counseling.

“We’re a rural state and technology like this can extend care,” said Paula Schnurr, deputy executive director for the PTSD center.

As a disorder, PTSD has only been recognized for a few decades and researchers are still trying to better understand the causes and develop effective treatments. Psychiatric therapy and antidepressants are the two basic ways that PTSD is treated now. The center continues to study new medications and investigate questions around the disorder, including whether it can be cured and how technology can be used to offer remote care. 

Besides the mobile app and the PTSD Coach Online, the center launched last year an educational website called “AboutFace,” where veterans can learn about PTSD, explore treatment options, hear real stories from other veterans and get advice from clinicians. AboutFace, the PTSD Coach and mobile app can be accessed for free at the center’s website, http://www.ptsd.va.gov.

None of these technologies are meant to replace traditional treatment options for people with PTSD, VA officials said. Rather, they offer additional support.

The PTSD Coach website is intended to be a resource for patients before, during and after getting care, Schnurr said. And it is available to anyone, whether or not they are a veteran.

People who use PTSD Coach Online can choose any variety of problems on which to work — anxiety, anger, sadness or even direction in life — and then select from a menu of online tools. 

For example, someone with sleep problems could pick from five tools, including “change how you think about sleep,” “form good sleep habits,” “relax through breathing,” “relax through visualization” and “relax your body.” After selecting one, a video appears with a psychologist explaining how the tool will work, followed by a series of exercises.

PTSD Center staff demonstrated the website Thursday for Tommy Sowers, the VA’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs.

Sowers visited White River Junction at the urging of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, but said he also wanted to see for himself how the VA was working with veterans.

The White River Junction VA has been a technology pioneer among the nation’s 152 VA medical centers, Sowers said, using web-based tools to deliver remote health care in veterans’ homes.

“I’ve seen a level of technology adoption here that I’ve not seen anywhere else,” Sowers said Thursday.

Much of the telehealth technology used at the VA has been centered around mental health, where therapy delivered via teleconferencing seems to be as effective as in-person treatment, Schnurr said. VA doctors maintain that online tools are intended to expand access, not replace in-person care. However, PTSD Center executive director Matthew Friedman said the Center is investigating questions around how the technology is used, when it is effective and when it falls short.

“We really need to know how to optimize it,” Friedman said.