Remote mental health care use among Veterans Affairs patients jumped dramatically last month as normal medical care appointments were disrupted and veterans forced into self-isolation because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Most significant were mental health care check-ins and consultations conducted over the phone. In February, those totaled about 40,000 appointments. In March, they topped 154,000, a nearly four-fold increase.
Department officials also said the number of mental health appointments conducted through online video chats with physicians rose from about 20,000 in February to 34,000 in March, an increase of 70 percent. Another 2,700 online video group therapy appointments were conducted in March, a nearly 200-percent increase from the previous month.
VA officials have already reported significant increases in use of the Veterans Crisis Line, although they said many of the additional callers are not facing suicidal thoughts. Instead, numerous veterans and family members have called for information on existing resources, or for help obtaining alternative mental health care programs.
In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said that the department’s “early embrace of new technology” is helping veterans.
“VA is open for business and we continue to provide same-day mental health services and mental health screening for veterans at-risk who require attention at any of our facilities,” he said.
The coronavirus outbreak has disrupted numerous VA programs and protocols over the last month, as physicians across the country scramble to deal with a steadily-increasing number of cases.
As of Friday, 200 VA patients have died from the illness and more than 3,500 others tested positive. More than 1,100 VA employees have also contracted the virus, and at least seven have died.
New safety precautions have cancelled thousands of non-essential medical appointments at VA hospitals across the country, although veterans with immediate needs are still being admitted to the facilities.
About 17 veterans a day die by suicide, according to the latest department data available. White House and VA officials had been scheduled to release a new government-wide effort on veteran suicide prevention last month, but that announcement was delayed by the coronavirus outbreak.
Congress set aside $19.6 billion in emergency funding for VA in their coronavirus stimulus package last month. Of that total, about $3.1 billion was assigned for new telemedicine efforts within VA, to increase health care access for veterans quarantined at home.
The VA remote mental health care numbers are expected to increase again in April, since many states did not offer stay-at-home recommendations until late in March or early this month.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.