Pilot program to aid caregivers in military families

On the Fourth of July and every day, we honor our nation’s armed forces personnel who sacrificed their health and even life itself for our freedom. At home, many of our wounded warriors live with injuries that require other heroes, such as military spouses, parents or friends, to provide compassionate, sacrificial care daily.

Caregivers in military families face challenges to their physical and mental health. A national report indicates that the prevalence of depression among military caregivers may be up to four times higher than the U.S. adult population. Some caregivers are addressing needs so intense and so constant that they barely have time to leave the home or look after themselves.

That’s why The University of Texas Health Science Center, now called UT Health San Antonio, is launching a 12-week pilot program to provide telehealth counseling for caregivers in 50 military families. This will be accomplished via computer and smartphone technology, allowing caregivers to interact face-to-face with licensed therapists without having to leave their homes.

William L. Henrich, M.D., MACP, president of UT Health San Antonio, on July 3 announced that a grant from USAA will fund this critical pilot program. “Every military caregiver and family is important,” President Henrich said. “We are establishing an innovative pilot program of telehealth support for these hidden heroes. Our goal, supported by USAA, is to strengthen the resiliency of families who care for our nation’s wounded service members.”

“USAA is proud to support this unique pilot program to strengthen the resiliency of military families, particularly those with an injured, wounded or ill service member requiring round-the-clock care,” said Justin Schmitt, assistant vice president for corporate responsibility at USAA. “We want to see our nation close the gaps that exist in the way we meet the needs of these military caregivers who often serve as the glue of their families.”

Fifty caregivers will initially participate in the pilot program. The program will target military caregivers addressing diverse issues in their loved ones, such as pain management, effects of traumatic brain injury, and mood and anxiety disorders.

Dawn Velligan, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry in the university’s Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine, is principal investigator of the pilot program, which began evaluating participating military caregivers on July 1.

Dr. Velligan is a published researcher in the development of mental health therapy, and she aims to publish data from this pilot program. “While a sample of 50 military caregivers will participate in this pilot program, the goal is to provide an evidence-based model of telehealth that can be expanded and taken nationwide to care for all our nation’s military caregivers,” she said.

The study duration is 12 weeks. Each of the 50 military caregivers in the pilot program will complete psychological scales at the start of the study and at weeks four, eight and 12. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other evidence-based psychotherapies will be utilized.

A Mental Health America report stated there is only one mental health provider for every 566 people in the U.S. In Texas and other states with the lowest number of mental health providers, there is one mental health provider for every 1,100 individuals.

“Telehealth for mental health is a huge need, and according to our needs assessment, few if any such programs exist nationally to serve military caregivers utilizing telehealth and licensed caregivers,” Dr. Velligan said.

Roxana Delgado, Ph.D., and Kimberly Peacock, Ed.D., of the Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics at UT Health San Antonio, trained eight licensed therapists to engage the unique needs of military caregivers. Dr. Delgado, a research fellow with the university’s Military Health Institute, is the wife of a Purple Heart recipient and she knows the life of a military caregiver firsthand. Dr. Peacock is a Gold Star wife whose husband made the ultimate sacrifice during Operation Desert Storm.

“As research from RAND and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation has shown, military caregivers experience depression, anxiety and hopelessness at a higher rate than civilian caregivers, making them less able to care for their children and other family members,” Dr. Delgado said. “They are stoic, want to carry on and are conflicted by guilt about their feelings. They need to talk about their concerns on a consistent basis with a caring professional. Even when they have access to mental health care services, military caregivers find it difficult to participate because of their day-to-day caregiving responsibilities and challenges with transportation and respite care. Bringing this program directly to their homes ensures that we bridge that gap for this community.”

Byron Hepburn, M.D., founding director of the Military Health Institute and professor of family and community medicine at UT Health San Antonio, said, “Drs. Delgado and Peacock are linked to individuals nationwide who are affected by their military loved ones’ injuries. Thus, these researchers have great insight into the needs of these vital and vulnerable caregivers.”

Dr. Hepburn, a retired U.S. Air Force Major General and flight surgeon, occupies the Maj. Gen. (USA Ret.) Joe and Patty Robles Chair in Military Health Research at UT Health San Antonio. This chair honors the former USAA CEO and his wife, and is one of many evidences of USAA’s longstanding support for UT Health San Antonio.

Dr. Hepburn said, “The pilot project seeks to validate this telehealth model as an ideal means of engagement with our military caregivers. Once its effectiveness has been demonstrated, the goal is to expand it nationally and for a very positive and lasting impact on our military families. The Military Health Institute is honored to collaborate with the caregiver program team to ensure success.”

“Service members and their family members frequently use Skype, Facebook and other software apps during deployments to see and talk to their families,” Dr. Peacock said. “Therefore, the telehealth aspect of the project fits in with their lives. Software allows a person to talk from their computer or smartphone face to face with a licensed therapist. The therapist’s empathy can be felt and experienced by the military caregiver, and the therapist can see if the caregiver looks exhausted.”

The pilot program is offered in collaboration with the Department of Psychiatry, which has experience with telehealth programs for caregivers, and the Military Health Institute, which exists to stimulate and raise awareness of collaborations between UT Health San Antonio and the military.

Researchers plan to create a manualized treatment protocol that can be expanded to help as many families as possible.

For more information, contact Cynthia Sierra, M.S., LPCi, at (210) 562-5215 or sierrac@uthscsa.edu.

View the KENS 5 story on the program

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