The number of forums and educational campaigns online dedicated to the condition have proliferated since then. Mobile applications in development by the VA and the Department of Defense National Center for Telehealth & Technology in Washington state, called T2, are designed to go further.
In April 2011, the two agencies launched PTSD Coach, an app that allows people to use their phones to take well-studied tests for assessing the severity of symptoms, track those results over time, and create quick-reference pages to contact the people who provide support in moments of need.
The program, available free on iPhone and Android devices, includes a series of exercises, such as guided meditation to help with anxiety and a page of resources for people in crisis. As of the end of July, the app had been downloaded about 66,000 times, Batten said.
Researchers at T2 now have a series of apps and more in development. The one that prompted Sullivan to return to treatment, called PE Coach, was launched in March and is designed for use in conjunction with “prolonged exposure” therapy that takes place in person.
Patients typically are asked, between visits, to listen to recordings of their therapy session, which can be recorded in the app. The program also includes self-assessment questionnaires and space for notes.
People with PTSD avoid things that trigger memories of trauma. So taking the first steps to get help and sticking with it can be difficult, said Greg Reger, a clinical psychologist at T2. The app is designed to make that process easier.
“When a patient adheres to a treatment plan, they’re giving themselves the best chance of improvement,” said Reger, who deployed to Iraq in 2005 and 2006 with a combat stress control detachment.
Reger is part of a network of researchers testing the use of virtual reality to activate service members’ memories in therapy. Others at his center are studying remote therapy, done through telehealth video conferencing.
It remains open to question how much these technologies can help someone with PTSD, said Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a retired Army colonel who is now chief medical officer for the District of Columbia Department of Mental Health. She sits on an Institute of Medicine committee examining PTSD treatments.
In a report released in June , the committee called for more formal study on the effectiveness of emerging technologies and alternative treatments such as yoga and acupuncture. Ritchie was optimistic that some will prove useful. But, she and others said, technology alone may not resolve the challenges faced by people deeply affected by war-related trauma.
“In the end, it’s still going to come down to the basic psychological principles and having people go through the hard work” of therapy, said the VA’s Batten. For some, like Sullivan, these tools may be a more palatable introduction to that work.