On Veterans Day, Americans remember and celebrate members of the military who made the ultimate sacrifice. But living veterans have fought another enemy over the past year: the coronavirus pandemic.
While many people have struggled with anxiety and depression throughout the COVID-19 crisis, veterans coping with issues like PTSD and substance abuse have been hit especially hard.
A new study on military veterans concluded that “psychiatric symptoms and suicidal ideation are prevalent in veterans who have survived COVID-19.”
According to two doctors at local veterans hospitals, veterans have been able to access mental health help through telehealth services throughout the pandemic.
“We did have significant concerns regarding increased rates of mental illness and substance use amongst our patients, especially the ones who were not actively engaging in care during the worst of the pandemic,” said Dr. Sarah Unterman, an emergency room doctor at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago.
“We actively reached out to those folks to use virtual care to keep them connected,” she said. “We have seen people who have deferred their care for many months, sometimes even the entire pandemic, but we’re using the new tools that we’ve built over the course of the pandemic to get them even better treatment than we would have been capable of beforehand.”
It looks like VA hospitals will continue using telehealth methods after the pandemic to reach their patients. “We are continuing to do that,” said Dr. Jeffrey Oken, acting chief of staff at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital. “We’re going to maintain a significant proportion of our appointments as video appointments so that there’s a greater flexibility for our patients.”
Both hospitals are now fully open and seeing patients in person. “There’s a huge pent-up demand. It’s really amazing,” Oken said. “Our clinics are full. We are getting our veterans in both face-to-face as well as virtually.”
Masks are still required, however. “We continue to have mandatory masking on our campus,” Oken said.
“According to the CDC, you still need to wear a mask inside a health care facility, which is what we are,” Unterman said. “Additionally, since we’re a federal facility, we’re still operating under the president’s executive order from January 20, which mandated mask wearing on all federal properties. So when people have objections we explained to them that both according to the president of the United States, and according to the CDC, we all still have to wear masks,” she said.