VA boosts staff, online services as mental health needs grow

Tuesday - 5/8/2012, 12:48pm EDT

Dr. Sonja Batten, mental health consultant, Veterans Affairs Department

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The Veterans Affairs Department is boosting its mental health staff and enhancing its online offerings to serve the growing number of veterans seeking mental health care.

A report by the VA's inspector general found the agency was underreporting the amount of time veterans were waiting to receive mental health services. Investigators found vets waited on average of about 50 days before receiving a full evaluation. Meanwhile, VA said 95 percent of patients got a full evaluation within the agency goal of 14 days. The report found one reason for the backlog was understaffing.

Dr. Sonja Batten (VA.gov)

VA said last month it is hiring nearly 2,000 mental health professionals and support staff. The agency will also continually assess staffing levels.

"In a few months, if it seems like we need more, we'll ask for more," said Dr. Sonja Batten, a mental health consultant at the VA, in an interview with The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

Last year, the VA provided mental health treatment to more than 1.3 million veterans, Batten said. The increased need for mental health care is due to veterans returning from deployment, as well as their increased willingness to seek help.

"Some of the stigma around mental health issues has been reduced through public awareness and people being willing to come forward and tell their own stories," Batten said.

In addition to face-to-face services, veterans can call a 24-hour crisis hotline (1-800-273-TALK), as well as chat online with a trained responder at veteranscrisisline.net..

Veterans can also access a mobile application — PTSD Coach. The app is free and has been downloaded more than 54,000 times, Batten said. She said the app is not a substitute for treatment but another tool available to veterans.

VA is also changing how it provides care, moving towards evidence-based treatments, such as psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, Batten said.

"Although medication can be helpful for some symptoms and for some veterans, for things like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], the treatment for which there is the most evidence is actually talk therapy," she said.

Another change is integrating mental health into the primary care clinic, "rather than having to set up a separate appointment and go to a different floor of the hospital," she said.

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