For some veterans, managing the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may seem like an overwhelming task. To assist in this process, the VA’s National Center for PTSD is offering online tools that help Veterans manage symptoms anywhere, anytime.
According to Rebecca Jackson Stoeckle of the Massachusetts-based Education Development Center (EDC), online tools are playing an increasingly important role in delivering mental health services to Veterans in need. And when these tools are research-based, they can be critical supplements to ongoing clinical care.
“The mental health needs of this population are simply larger than clinicians’ ability to address them,” says Stoeckle. “There’s a need for digital health tools that allow Veterans to track their behaviors and manage their symptoms in between visits to their clinician.”
EDC has already built and released one tool, called PTSD Coach Online. This web-based platform grew out of the popular PTSD Coach smartphone app, which was developed by the Center and offers 17 different evidence-informed tools to help those suffering from PTSD cope with its symptoms. The tools range from instructions for how to use deep breathing exercises to relieve stress to short interactive tutorials that help users develop healthy habits, such as better sleep patterns.
“It’s important for anyone dealing with mental health issues to have choices in their treatment,” says Cybele Merrick, associate director for education at the Center. “PTSD Coach Online is not a standalone treatment option, but it can be used during treatment because the tools are so in line with current therapies.”
The online version was developed to reach Veterans who do not have smartphones. It includes more writing exercises than the app, and its tools can help Veterans manage immediate symptoms as well as develop ongoing behaviors and skills for leading a healthy life. Merrick describes PTSD Coach Online as a “booster” that can remind Veterans of the techniques they learned in cognitive behavioral therapy.
“We thought a lot about how to take something that was often done in a clinician’s office and transfer it to an online environment where the patient is doing everything alone,” says EDC’s Athi Myint-U. “The user experience was paramount.”
This winter, EDC will release another online tool for Veterans. Called VetChange, it is an online resource for Veterans with co-occurring PTSD and problem drinking, and it is based on an intervention originally piloted by the Boston University School of Public Health and the VA.
The primary goal of VetChange is to help users control or reduce their drinking. It includes a daily log for users to track their drinking, allows them to set weekly goals, and includes learning tools that help them develop action plans to meet those goals. VetChange users can sign in and save their action plans and daily logs, providing continuity. They can also sign up to receive e-mail or text reminders from VetChange to stay engaged.
Developing a complete online resource presented a number of opportunities for innovation, says Myint-U. One example is the website’s responsive design, which gives users flexibility in how to access the site, whether via smartphone, tablet or desktop computer.
Another change is the amount of information that users can enter. In the original version of VetChange, users had to track their drinking behaviors on paper before entering them into an online system once a week. But the new version allows users to log their behavior online at any time.
“Users can even enter narrative details, like how they were feeling and where they were when they felt the urge to drink,” says Myint-U. “This way, they can easily reflect on their behaviors over time and on how far they’ve come.”
It’s that final note about progress that rings true for Stoeckle.
“Progress is seeing every veteran get the mental health care they need, when they need it,” she says. “We are honored to help make that possible.”
About the author: Burt Granofsky is a senior writer at EDC. EDC is a global non-profit organization that designs, implements, and evaluates programs to improve education, health, and economic opportunity worldwide. Visit www.edc.org.