Army Reducing Stigma of Psychological Care, Offering Telepsychiatry
Col. Elspeth C. Ritchie gestures as she speaks to the crowd at the Washington Convention Center May 6. Ritchie gave a lecture at the 161st American Psychiatric Association annual meeting emphasizing the need to reduce the stigma of behavioral health ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Army News Service, May 7, 2008) - In the Army's recent fight to reduce the stigma of seeking and receiving treatment for combat stress, the latest weapon is telepsychiatry.

A leading Army doctor talked about the psychological effects of war Tuesday to psychiatrists from around the world at the Washington Convention Center. The lecture was part of the 161st American Psychiatric Association annual meeting.

Col. Elspeth C. Ritchie, psychiatry consultant to the Army's surgeon general and director of the Proponency for Behavioral Health, discussed the importance of caring for Soldiers throughout their deployment cycle.

"Another thing that we are doing a lot of is telemedicine-telepyschiatry-that can be very effective in certain circumstances," Ritchie said.

Telepsychiatry puts the therapist and patient into a secure, one-on-one, Web-based videoconference. It can also be conducted over the phone with no video feed, but with phone connections sometimes unreliable in theater, Ritchie said face-to-face consultations are preferred.

However, telemedicine projects psychological health services into remote locations, Ritchie said, enabling more Soldiers to have access to quality care.

Ritchie's lecture, titled the "Psychological Effects of War: From the Battlefront to the Home Front and Back Again," emphasized the need to reduce the stigma of behavioral health.

"Yes, it does exist," Ritchie said, noting the prevalence of stigma throughout the Army and civilian worlds.

One of the simplest ways of reducing stigma is to change the way psychological health is talked about.

"We've gone away from the term 'mental health' to either behavioral health or psychological health, trying to reduce the stigma," Ritchie said.

Awareness and support of both the Soldier and the Family includes psychological preparation before and during deployment as well as easy access to quality treatment before, during and after deployment, Ritchie explained. Helping Family, friends and fellow Soldiers better understand the needs individuals have with behavioral health issues all help to reduce stigma, she said.

The Army is managing to reduce stigma through educational products, Ritchie said. Products for children and families, including educational DVDs, help them understand what a Soldier is going through and how to cope with any problems that may occur when the Soldier returns.

Ritchie emphasized access to quality psychological care throughout the deployment cycle is important. Caring for the Soldier's needs includes treatment from medical professionals as well as the support of other Soldiers and leadership in the field, she explained.

"I cannot endorse enough what (Col. Ritchie) said about stigma," said Patrick White, a psychiatrist from Alberta, Canada, "I think stigma is one of the big barriers for soldiers getting treatment. In Canada, we see a lot of it and we find that stigma socially isolates the troops."

The Army trains leadership to recognize symptoms of behavioral health problems so they can provide the Soldier with help as quickly as possible. "Buddy aid," or a Soldier's understanding and awareness of symptoms in their fellow troops, also helps reduce the frequency of suicide and depression by easing the strain on relationships an individual may have, Ritchie said.