Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Providing Mental Healthcare

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll on the mental health resources available to troops in the Air Force. The number of men and women who need help with mental health issues outweighs the number of available Air Force psychiatrists.

The Air Force and the University of Nebraska Medical Center UNMC) have formed a partnership so that medical center psychiatrists will be able to provide servicemen and women help via telehealth technology. The problems the troops present range from PTSD to depression and substance abuse. The university has sought congressional funds to start this program.

The UNMC Department of Psychiatry will take the lead and James Sorrell, M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry will head the effort. “Ultimately this project will help meet mental health needs in the state since the difficulties faced by the military and rural communities are very similar. Both have high demands for psychiatric services and have critical provider shortages. Lessons learned will enable us to provide cutting edge psychiatric and behavioral care to underserved communities in rural Nebraska.”

The telepsychiatry services will be offered regionally to personnel on Air Force bases in Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, as well as on bases in Korea and Japan. In addition, UNMC and the Air Force are working on developing portable devices as small as a Blackberry to help deliver care.

In another move to help service members with mental health issues, the Air Force has introduced virtual reality-based software to help service veterans combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The software is now being used at eight Air Force bases to help create a safe environment to help veterans with PTSD.

This new Virtual Reality (VR) technology compliments the evidence-based treatment called “Prolonged Exposure Therapy” plus it helps service members successfully integrate their deployment experiences into their concept of themselves and face other challenges.

The VR treatment for PTSD also helps soldiers deal with their deployment in a way they can control. By focusing on their experiences, they are able to bypass the anxiety that sometimes comes from having to do strictly face-to-face talking therapy.

The individual undergoing treatment uses a head mounted display similar to a pair of sunglasses which has separate screens for each eye and a head tracking device. The display is then connected to a computer graphics workstation that introduces sights and sounds designed to make them feel like they are in a situation such as on patrol in the city or driving a Humvee. There is even a vibrating platform and a mock M16 instead of a typical game controller to more successfully engage the person in the experience.

During the therapy session, the person describes the trauma they are experiencing in detail to the therapist. They verbally recall everything they can to the therapist in the present tense such as sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, and feelings. The therapist then recreates the scene for the individual to experience, and during the session, the therapist has the person rate their overall distress at several points. The individual will go through the same scenario several times until they are able to process the memory and view the experience differently.

It is ideal for individuals who find it difficult to engage in visual imagery, who have patchy or clouded memories, who may have blacked out during their trauma experience, or who are unable or unwilling to experience the full range of anxiety and distress they felt when traumatized.