Military
6:00 am
Fri July 15, 2011

App Helps Vets with PTSD

The Veterans Administration has a new smart phone application to help veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The Veterans Administration has a new smart phone application to help veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who come into Veterans Affairs Hospitals are being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. There are many ways to treat them, but one challenge for therapists is helping veterans track of their symptoms and learn how to deal with them. Now the VA has introduced a smart phone application to help.

Once every few months, Duke University tests it’s emergency sirens. They’re loud. Really loud. And for Afghanistan veterans like Bruce Capehart, they’re eerily familiar.

Hoban: "How close is this to what you used to hear at Bagram?"
Bruce Capehart: "It is the same sound, same volume"
Hoban: "And what did it mean?"
Capehart: "Over there, it meant you had to get up out of your chair and pay attention to something pretty damned fast."


This siren’s located right in front of the Durham Veterans Affairs hospital, across the street from Duke University Hospital. Capehart says it spooked him when he returned to work there after being deployed to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. It ends up spooking lots of vets who come to the hospital for care. Capehart is a psychiatrist at the V-A who treats fellow veterans with post traumatic stress disorder, or P-T-S-D.

Capehart: "You learn that some things are really important when you’re in a combat zone, and knowing when people are shooting at you is one of those things that's really important. And even after you come back home, it's hard to sort of lose that automatic, almost reflexive reaction to it."


Capehart says that’s one of the things about P-T-S-D, even for folks who don’t have active symptoms – sounds like that familiar siren, or a loud noise, or thunder can trigger a visceral reaction. One of the ways to help vets with P-T-S-D cope with those triggers is to keep track of them when they happen. Vets are encouraged to note what kinds of emotions get generated when they encounter triggers and do exercises to cope.

Capehart: "We commonly encourage veterans to keep a journal and to write down what symptoms they have and when those symptoms occur so we can then understand in treatment, how to help intervene."


Lots of vets don’t like carrying around a notebook. But now, lots of people have smart phones….

Moe: "Like, I bring less attention to myself whenever I'm out in the general public… or with my friends or family members"


Moe is a former Army corpsman who asked not to use his last name. He was deployed twice – once each to Afghanistan and to Iraq, where he treated lots of wounded and dying soldiers. He also sustained a traumatic brain injury.

Moe: "I can just hop on here without them really knowing, for all intents and purposes they think I'm checking my Facebook messages, or texts."


Moe was an early adopter of P-T-S-D Coach. The free app was released by the V-A for iPhones in May, and for Droids in June. It already has about 13 thousand downloads. Moe’s therapist, Eric Crawford says they’re still working out how best to use the app together in their sessions. He also says it has features that make it useful for veterans who aren’t yet in treatment.

Eric Crawford: "One is to learn about PTSD, and PTSD treatment. Another is a self-assessment where the person is able to keep track of their PTSD symptoms in their distress in real time."


Another feature is the manage symptoms menu. It suggests ways to cope with feelings such as anger, sadness or anxiety.

App Voice: "Please note that if you have injuries such as back pain, or a knee jury, you should avoid tensing muscles that might affect that injury."
Crawford: "So this is one of the tools that people can use to manage anxiety or stress in real-time"
App voice: "Close your eyes and take a deep breath into your belly, then exhale with a sigh."


What Crawford likes best is the app’s appeal to younger vets, who make up the bulk of his caseload.

Crawford: "Any time you can make mental health treatment cool, it's a win. You know, especially for younger veterans or tech savvy veterans who end up walking through these doors on a regular basis."


And Moe agrees with Crawford that the app is cool. Really cool.

Moe: "It… it's a good app... I pay more attention to this than Angry Birds now."