By Harry Palmer

Earlier today, Combat Stress announced the findings of their year-long tele-therapy pilot. Funded by the Forces in Mind Trust (FiMT), the pilot trialled the impact of tele-therapy (therapeutic interventions for mental health conditions via electronic remote mediums, in this case over Skype) for veterans with mental health difficulties. 

The potential of this work is profound, aiming to tackle a range of barriers that prevent a veteran from seeking the help they need from mental health services. Veterans, like the rest of the population, experience a number of barriers that can stop them from accessing the support they need. This can be in the form of practical barriers, such as the inability to get the time off work to attend therapy sessions, to a lack of understanding of where to turn next, through to stigma-related barriers, where the veteran does not want to be seen as needing help. It is hoped that the findings of this project can begin to influence and change how we provide therapy, in this case for veterans but potentially for everyone experiencing mental health problems in the UK.

Veterans, like the rest of the population, experience a number of barriers that can stop them from accessing the support they need.

One of the concerns of this project was that veterans and clinicians would not appreciate the remote nature of the work, with the relationship between client and therapist not forming as well as it would if they were face-to-face. Whilst the project did experience some technical difficulties which impacted on sessions, the fact that therapist and client were not in the same room did not have any meaningful impact on the outcome of the therapy. Overall, the project shows excellent initial results, demonstrating that a tele-therapy based service is accessible for the veteran, flexible to their needs and, in a time where all mental health services need to increasingly justify their budgets, cost-effective. So this poses the question, what is next for tele-therapy?

Well, the first step is a small but profound one, expanding the tele-therapy services in the UK to begin to offer it to veterans outside of this small pilot study. Tele-therapy has not been trialled in UK veterans before, with the vast majority of work being conducted in the USA. Whilst the findings are encouraging, and change is already beginning within a number of organisations, future effort is required to impact upon other veterans’ mental health services, NHS commissioning and the wider mental health service provision in the UK. This is where Centre for Mental Health can continue to support veterans’ research in the UK through the FiMT’s Mental Health Research Programme.

The project [demonstrates] that a tele-therapy based service is accessible for the veteran, flexible to their needs and, in a time where all mental health services need to increasingly justify their budgets, cost-effective.

Launched in 2014, the Programme oversees the annual disbursement of funding to encourage research into veteran’s mental health. We generate knowledge and effect change for those members of our Armed Forces community who struggle with mental health problems after their Service. Centre for Mental Health, in partnership with FiMT and the King’s Centre for Military Health Research (KCMHR), provides expert oversight and support to research teams through a project’s life, from the initial conception through to its dissemination and impact activities. Our Chief Executive, Sarah Hughes, serves as one of the Programme’s co-Chairs (alongside Prof Sir Simon Wessely from KCMHR), offering guidance on the direction of the Programme and chairing the quarterly review panel, whilst other key members of staff support the Programme in its administration, oversight, impact and convening work. It was through this Programme that we were able to support Combat Stress in their examination of tele-therapy, and by this Programme that we seek to support the effort to recognise tele-therapy as the valuable resource it is for the future. Long may this continue. 

It is important to note that whilst the majority of veterans do well after their time in service, there is a small minority who continue to experience problems (be it mental, physical, financial or in other areas). These veterans need our support to ensure that they have the best chance to live a sustainable and happy life, and projects like this from Combat Stress, exploring new and innovative treatments, represent a key step in achieving this aim. The Centre is delighted to support such important work and we will continue to drive change in veteran’s mental health through valuable research.

The report from Combat Stress is available here