Rob Bailey sits alone each day in the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall he commands in Montgomery, Ill. Retired veterans no longer sit in the banquet hall and lounge, chatting with each other. Bailey, a U.S. Navy veteran, may send out emails or tidy up, but he’s always close to the phone, ready for anyone who needs someone to talk to. Some days, 10 to 12 people call him. On days the phone doesn’t ring, Bailey calls at-risk members of his VFW “family.”
The isolation, job loss, and fear from the coronavirus pandemic put military veterans’ mental health at great risk. Before the crisis, veterans were already 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population in the United States. Groups that serve veterans are combating the negative effects of isolation by trying to get ahead of the problem by adopting telemedicine, adding hotlines, and making themselves available for counseling.
“Isolation is a killer in the veteran community,” Veteran’s Club Founder and CEO Jeremy Harrell told WKYT-TV in Lexington, Ky. “It’s something we fight every single day.” To alleviate the threat, the Kentucky-based group formed a new mental health team whose members can answer texts, phone calls, and video chats 24/7.
Boredom is dangerous, too.
“An idle mind is the worst thing for veterans,” Bailey said. “Right now, it’s a lot worse, especially for veterans with PTSD,” Bailey said, adding that being quarantined can feel similar to military service and trigger difficult memories brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder.
Retired veterans seem to struggle the most because of the lack of routine. Bailey said before the VFW hall closed, some veterans came by multiple times a day: “They rely on the VFW for friendship, companionship, and now they don’t have that.”
The Cohen Veterans Network, a nonprofit group that deals with mental health issues, has seen its web traffic increase—it spikes after midnight on Saturdays. Cohen has 15 health centers across the nation and plans to open 10 more later this year. Because of the coronavirus, it has transitioned 98 percent of its patients to telemedicine.
The Department of Veterans Affairs also uses telemedicine, especially for mental health appointments. Remote mental health check-ins almost quadrupled from February to March. Virtual therapy through the VA Online Connect app grew 70 percent during the same period. Veterans Affairs also launched a campaign for Mental Health Awareness Month in May to make sure veterans know about the available resources.
Cohen President Anthony Hassan anticipates even greater needs for mental health treatment and fears the U.S. health system is unprepared: “The one thing I don’t want to be is too late. We need to be talking now about how we can make sure we are ahead of this.”