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Local military community adapts to virtual mental health programs

Use of telehealth services at veteran and military mental health clinics grew sharply through pandemic.

As the global pandemic and ensuing social-distancing measures tested Tampa Bay’s resolve, members of the local military community quickly adapted to meeting with their mental health counselors over Zoom video calls.

Local military clinics, as well as those with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, saw use of their remote mental health services boom in March and April. The same happened across the country. Program leaders say it demonstrates the feasibility of telehealth for mental healthcare, even after the pandemic.

The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Aspire Health Partners in Tampa, which caters to post-9/11 veterans and their families, had a 213 percent increase in sessions done over Zoom through April, according to spokeswoman Kate Sullivan.

Mental health care consultations by phone through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs saw a 280 percent increase in March nationwide, and the department’s Vet Centers saw virtual mental health sessions grow by 200 percent in the same month, according to an agency press release.

The increase at the Tampa Cohen clinic was driven partially by new referrals, but program leaders say the biggest story was how seamlessly existing clients transitioned to telehealth for their appointments. Before the clinic began operating remotely, only 30 of its 100 clients were using telehealth. By late April, 94 clients were using telehealth, and now they are up to 110, according to Sullivan.

Amid the pandemic, clinicians at the Tampa site saw an uptick in acute symptoms of anxiety and depression among veterans and their families, said Karen Blanchette, Tampa clinic director. They were able to get most existing clients onto telehealth, and they continue to check on previous clients and those who put services on hold.

Having patients meet clinicians online has limits, Blanchette acknowledged. There can be distractions in the background, and some clients may fear a lack of privacy in their homes.

Clients also may give off nonverbal clues that cannot be detected without a face-to-face meeting. Clinicians have adapted by asking more detailed questions during sessions.

Overall, they have found telehealth equally as effective as clinic-based services, Blanchette said. Some clients have said that even after the clinic reopens, they wish to continue using these video conference services, she added.

The ability to continue care through telehealth during the pandemic was key for the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well, said Matt Miller, director of suicide prevention for the agency.

The national Veterans Crisis Line saw a 5 percent increase in demand by mid-March, he said.

The department developed a dashboard for local providers to track mental health patients who both tested positive for the coronavirus and have a high risk of suicide, Miller said. They also created an app that allows veterans to build their own stress management plans, he added.

Mental health services have continued at MacDill Air Force Base during the pandemic. The Integrated Resilience Office, which coordinates family advocacy, chaplains and mental health services for service members and their families, has been emphasizing work-life balance as more workers transitioned to working from home, said Lisa Williams, MacDill’s community support coordinator. As of April 5, 75 percent of the base’s 6th Air Refueling Wing was teleworking, a spokesman said.

Base leaders have been checking in on their team members’ well-being, said Col. Benjamin Robins, vice commander of the 6th Air Refueling Wing.

“This is a leadership challenge we have not seen, at least in our generation,” Robins said.

For Anthony Hassan, chief executive of the Cohen Veterans Network of clinics, telehealth options have opened up a discussion of what mental health services will look like in the military community. They also may be able to increase the number of clinicians by giving them the option to work from home.

“There’s no reason why someone can’t get help,” he said.

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