Long Waits and Tragic Suicides in Veterans Highlight Need for More Telemental Health Access

Telemental health software and telehealth solutions could provide the answer to places with veteran care disparity. 

Beyond the actual physical labor and potential harm military personnel put themselves in when they decide to enlist, one of the main reasons society owes such a debt to these people is because of the emotional and psychological baggage that they often will carry with them for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, while conditions in Veteran Affairs clinics have improved over recent years, there remains a gap in many locations when it comes to staff and desired services.

One of these locations is the Veteran Affairs clinic in Northfield, NJ. According to PressofAtlanticCity.com, veterans seeking appointments for mental and emotional health issues are forced to wait months just to see a professional for evaluation. Cori-Ann Feiner-Escoto is the only psychologist that works at this particular clinic, along with one psychiatrist, one behavioral health social worker, and a behavioral health registered nurse.

Of the 2,244 patients the clinic regularly sees every year, almost half (954) utilize the Northfield clinic’s behavioral health services. Diagnosable mental illness is found in about 30 to 35% of the chronically ill population, but veterans remain one of the groups most affected by mental conditions when it comes to looking at it by profession.

“I was hired about three years ago. A month in I realized how understaffed we are,” Feiner-Escoto said. ” I can’t help but think if I could give appropriate care, maybe they would have a better chance. I’m not superwoman. I can’t prevent every suicide. But I could give them half a chance.”

She said she has lost six patients since she has been working at the clinic either to suicide or drug overdoses. Although she is, of course, prohibited from discussing specifics, one of those patients could have been Charles R. Ingram III, 51, a veteran who died after pouring gasoline all over himself and lighting himself on fire on March 19.

Although officials from the Wilmington VA Medical Center disputed Feiner-Escoto’s claims that her clinic is so severely understaffed, the question of how to more effectively help these men and women who have served the country is still a question.

Telehealth technologies and telemental health could play a big role going forward. Telemedicine research has exploded in recent years opening up new opportunities for under-served communities and groups across the country. The industry is expected to reach about $27.3 billion globally in 2016.

Many people report enjoying these kinds of services as much as traditional in-person visits. In fact, a higher proportion of telepsychiatry appointments was kept than face-to-face appointments (92% telepsychiatry vs. 87% non-telepsychiatry) in one recent study.

The VA has said they plan to invest in more services, such as telemental health institutes, to achieve same-day evaluations for any veteran seeking one by the end of 2016.