EL CENTRO, CALIF. — After an hour-long commute from Yuma, Ruben Moreno Garcia arrives at his El Centro apartment and immediately boots up his laptop. First thing: he checks his inbox for the two emails he receives every Monday. One email is a reminder for his weekly counseling session; The Army veteran was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving three tours in combat. The other email has a username and password for that he needs in order to connect to those weekly counseling sessions. He logs into Jabber, a Skype-like service, and inputs the newly-generated credentials. A few rings later and he’s connected to Kathryn Williams, a psychologist located more than 100 miles away at the San Diego VA.
It’s called telemental health — virtually connecting patient with psychologist. Nearly a quarter of veterans return home with post-traumatic stress disorder, but only a few actually seek treatment. Hectic schedules, transportation challenges and the persistent stigma regarding mental health may prevent those in need from seeking help. The telehealth program helps to break those barriers, and the San Diego VA is its West Coast leader. According to the program’s administrator, psychologist Nilesh Shah, the program got its start as a way to monitor chronic disease among patients who lived far away. “For example, we would have a diabetic patient who would submit daily their blood sugars or their blood pressure,” he said.