Kimberly Washington filed this report
A new study at the Medical University of South Carolina seeks to find better ways to treat veterans who suffer from PTSD as a result of sexual trauma from their time in the military.
A cooperative effort between the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration will investigate if psychology treatments can be done with vets at home through “telemedicine,” rather than requiring them to travel to one of the state’s few VA clinics.
“If they come in to the VA for these services, they generally are surrounded by people that look a lot like the perpetrator,” MUSC nursing professor and associate dean Dr. Ron Acierno told South Carolina Radio Network.
Instead of traveling to Charleston for appointments, military sexual trauma patients would communicate with psychologists by video under the new MUSC study. Acierno said he will seek to uncover if the complex psychological therapy that is required for victims of sexual assault can be successfully administered through telemedicine. Previous research conducted at MUSC on combat veterans, detailed in The Lancet and the Journal of Depression and Anxiety, suggests that it’s likely to work as well as in-person visits, he said.
1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men tell VA clinicians that they’ve been victims of military sexual trauma, according to provider data. Military sexual trauma involves psychological harm from “sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that a veteran experienced during his or her military service,” according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website.
The 100-participant research study in the Lowcountry is part of a larger body of Defense Department-funded research designed to help military veterans that MUSC is conducting with the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.
Acierno is studying treatment know as “prolonged exposure therapy,” a method used to help people recover from PTSD in two parts. The first part is called imaginal exposure. “It involves having the person re-experience the traumatic event but this time on their own terms,” Acierno said. “Over and over again in tremendous detail and we have them recount in the first person present tense what happened to them and we record it.”
These recordings are used in session and replayed daily by the patient until the memory no longer overwhelms the patient. “The idea is not to upset people, the idea is to allow people to get used to these memories, because what happens now is the memories are triggered by reminders in the environment but it’s not really on their own terms,” Acierno explained.
The second phase is called vivo exposure. In this approach, patients identify places that they may be avoiding because they remind them of traumatic events.
The person is gradually exposed to the site, using relaxation techniques to try to stay calm, and over time gets used to being there and stops avoiding it.
Acierno said he’s already seen benefits of home-based telemedicine in respect to suicide, “If a person is suicidal in my office after a session and they get up and leave I have no idea where to send authorities,” he said. “If we’re doing home based telemedicine I know exactly where to send authorities. We’ve actually prevented a suicide with this method.”
He says the study not only allows victims to speak with counselors in the privacy of their homes but also allows those experts to reach victims who live in other cities and would otherwise have to drive a long way for appointments.