WASHINGTON—The COVID-19 pandemic closed many hospitals and clinics across the U.S. this spring, but that didn’t stop the VA from supporting veterans with serious mental illness. To the contrary, it led to an expansion of service approaches that may prove valuable even after the current crisis has passed.
The resources reach veterans through multiple methods—phone, text, website, print, telehealth, and sometimes in person. They meet needs ranging from self-care reminders to peer counseling to crisis intervention and suicide prevention.
More than 1.7 million veterans received treatment in a mental health specialty program at the VA in 2018, many of them for serious mental illnesses (SMIs). SMI includes major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
For veterans who just need a little reminder to take care of themselves during this stressful time, the VA offers general guidance online for managing stress and anxiety as well as links to other resources. Annie, a text messaging program, also helps veterans provides tips for managing COVID-related stress and maintaining physical and mental health.
Those who want something a little more in-depth can download a variety of mental health apps that focus on managing mood, dealing with COVID, and maintaining mindfulness or use the Moving Forward stress management educational program on virtually any device.
Printable documents tailored to managing specific serious mental illnesses during the pandemic give a balance of general advice about the importance of routine, regular exercise, and sufficient sleep as well as reminders to develop or follow a wellness plan, maintain a sufficient stock of medication, and stay socially connected while maintaining physical distance.
The sheets also include customized resource lists and links that put services tailored to veterans with depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, or bipolar disorder at veterans’ fingertips. Those resources include online support groups and peer counselors as well as national sites and organizations that offer additional information and support for individuals with serious mental illness.
For one-on-one care, veterans have turned to VA’s telehealth program, VA Video Connect, in huge numbers. Between February and May 2020, the number of video appointments at the VA rose from 10,000 to 120,000 per week. The service allows veterans to meet virtually with their VA patient care team via any internet connected mobile device or computer. Veterans can also schedule phone appointments with mental health professionals.
Veterans who need to connect with someone immediately can use the Veterans Crisis Line by text, online chat, or calling. In some locations, veterans may also be able to see a mental health specialist in person, if the facility is open for appointments.
On a broader scale, the VA and White House launched the REACH national public health campaign in July. The REACH website includes information on factors that may protect against suicide, such as belonging to a faith-based community, healthy family relationships, having a purpose in life and strong problem-solving skills.
The program emphasizes the importance of intentionally strengthening protective factors for emotional health and well-being for everyone. For veterans with serious mental illness, those factors may have even greater impact as they face significantly elevated risk of suicide. The program also encourages veterans and the wider community to engage in public discussion of vulnerabilities and mental health struggles and to connect with others to reduce suicide among veterans.