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Anonymous online counseling for vets shows early success

Apr. 14, 2014 - 03:13PM   |  
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When they contracted with the Vets Prevail program late last year, Veterans Affairs Department officials hoped the Web-based mental health resource could enroll about 2,200 new veterans in its anonymous counseling over a year.

The program reached that number in a little more than three months.

“We think that shows the real need for something like this,” said Richard Gengler, founder of Prevail Health Solutions, which runs the program. “A lot of the time, veterans are scared away from getting any help because of the stigma. But this is a way to reach them and help them.”

In recent years, VA officials have put extra effort into outreach efforts for the millions of veterans who don’t seek help from the department.

Last year, nearly 9 million veterans — roughly 40 percent of the U.S. veteran population — used some type of VA health service. But officials believe that even more could benefit, especially in the realm of mental health.

Vets Prevail officials are hoping their success serves as a new model for those efforts. The department has expanded its telehealth offerings in recent years, but most of those programs require traditional enrollment in the VA system.

The Vets Prevail program, launched in 2012, provides self-assessments, treatment walk-throughs and peer counseling without requiring veterans to identify themselves.

“These are people who would not have gotten into the system otherwise,” Gengler said. “For a lot of them, anonymity is the first step. And for others, the anonymous program may be all they need.”

As individuals progress, they’re given opportunities to connect to local VA offices. About half of them do, Gengler said.

For others, the program can continue giving them tips on stress management and behavior therapy.

The program was developed with assistance from Chicago-based Rush University Medical Center, which also provides clinical oversight for the work. Clinical trials of individuals who have gone through the program so far have shown the online offerings to be as effective as face-to-face sessions for treatment of post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.

But comparing those individuals to VA patients is misleading, officials said, because most of them never would have reached out for help if not for the anonymous option.

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