Under the leadership of Secretary Eric Shinseki, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is undergoing a remarkable transformation that has dramatically improved Veteran access to the services they have earned. Because so many of today’s Veterans are familiar and comfortable with web-enabled applications and smartphones, our opportunities to “reach Veterans where they are” have never been greater, or more effective. From eBenefits to Blue Button, VA is serious about automated electronic outreach.
Engaging Veterans on their own terms is especially crucial in the area of mental health. Each year VA sees a steadily rising number of Veterans with mental health concerns, and extending our services to them – safely, reliably, and privately – is one of the Administration’s top priorities. Over the last four years, Veterans seeking and receiving specialized mental health treatment at VA increased from 900,000 to 1.2 million; last year alone over 400,000 Veterans who received mental health treatment had a diagnosis of PTSD. Providing excellent care at VA facilities around the country to those who are ready to seek treatment has never been more important, but is only one way we can address the problem.
In order to broaden VA’s reach to today’s Veterans and prevent long-term readjustment problems, VA is making self-assessment and management tools readily accessible to Veterans with a smartphone. In April of this year, and as part of the First Lady’s and Dr. Biden’s Joining Forces initiative, we launched the PTSD Coach, a smartphone app jointly designed by VA and DoD for Veterans and Service members who are experiencing PTSD symptoms. This modern app was built in response to Veterans who said they needed tools to get them through difficult moments, and was created by VA’s National Center for PTSD and DoD’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology, thanks to a team spearheaded by Dr. Julia Hoffman.
Today’s Veterans also want to be able to track their own symptoms and have an independent way of seeing whether things are getting better or worse over time. The real-time power of a smartphone app to provide reliable information, assessment tools, and self-management skills has made a huge difference to thousands of Veterans. In fact, in just two months, over 10,000 people in 37 countries have already downloaded this free app. And there are more mobile health apps on the way.
This cutting edge approach builds on technological innovations that VA began in July of 2009, when an anonymous chat feature was added to the Veterans Crisis Line. Sometimes Veterans and Service members need to talk to someone, but their circumstances make it difficult to have a telephone conversation. Reaching Veterans where they are means creating channels they can use; an anonymous chat feature is a terrific option for many Veterans who need immediate support, but can’t call on a telephone. This program is led by VA’s own Dr. Jan Kemp, who was recognized as the 2009 Federal Employee of the Year! And the staff of the Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255, press 1) have answered over 430,000 calls (since July 2007) and 18,000 chats in less than two years.
Thousands of lives have been saved through the hard work of the responders at the Veterans Crisis Line, and thousands more will be eased by innovative applications like the PTSD Coach that make our services increasingly effective and much easier to reach.