Disruptions to everyday life caused by the coronavirus pandemic are putting a strain on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some are seeking help virtually.
Since the coronavirus put a halt on in-person gatherings, yoga instructor Forest Spall has been leading weekly meditation sessions on the video chat service Zoom.
"Inhale, straighten and exhale, bend," he instructed participants during a recent session. Small windows at the top of the screen showed veterans in their living rooms following along.
The sessions are run by the Tampa-area nonprofit group Veterans Alternative. It typically brings vets to Florida from across the country for intensive alternative treatment programs. The COVID-19 pandemic is preventing that from happening, so the group is offering virtual therapy instead.
"There's no wrong way to do this, just like there's no wrong way to be you," Spall told participants as they lay down on their yoga mats and prepared for iRest, a guided meditation approved by the military to treat trauma.
Persian Gulf War veteran Kathleen Stadler joined the session from her Connecticut home. She has battled PTSD for decades and attended an in-person program with the group in February, just weeks before her community shut down.
Stadler is a nurse and said she understands the importance of social distancing to protect public health. She is restricting in-person contact with her mother and is avoiding places like the grocery store unless it's absolutely necessary.
"That's really hard because me," she said. "Just being idle is not good for any person, never mind a veteran with PTSD. They need to get out, and they need to be on the move."
Stadler said there are times when the isolation and concerns for her loved ones' safety trigger her PTSD symptoms. When she feels them come on, she tries to remember what she learned during treatment to calm down, like recalling positive memories and spending time in nature.
Stadler is now taking on a different kind of stress. After her PTSD forced her to temporarily stop working as a critical care nurse, she is starting a new job in a hospital emergency department on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
"There's going to be a lot of emotional feelings of going back into the field and just being around all those people," she said.
Stadler said staying connected with people from Veterans Alternative and taking part in virtual therapy have been a huge help for her.
"This is teaching me how important it is to be practicing those tools that give me peace during times I don't have that peace, or my body won't let me have that peace," she said.
The VA ramps up virtual therapy
COVID-19 has led to a dramatic increase in virtual therapy for vets.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said its mental health providers completed 34,000 appointments with the VA Video Connect app in March, a 70 percent increase from the 20,000 completed in February.
Vet Centers, which provide counseling services separate from VA medical facilities, saw a 200 percent increase in the number of virtual appointments.
"Our focus has always been on that face-to-face connection and creating community by bringing in veterans and service members and allowing them to connect with each other within our vet centers," said Michael Fisher, the VA's Chief Readjustment Counseling Officer.
He said it may not be ideal to provide counseling virtually, especially for group therapy, but it's essential right now.
"We have to continue making sure individuals are staying on track with whatever their goals might be, but I think the other thing is making sure we're effectively dealing with the anxiety and fear that these kind of situations create," Fisher said.
But video chats and virtual yoga don't work for everybody. Not every veteran has access to the technology or feels comfortable with it.
Fisher said for those vets, the VA offers mental health care over the phone. The VA reported 154,000 phone appointments in March, up from 40,000 in February.
And for those who really need in-person interaction, vet centers are still open and are taking protective measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including screening people before they enter the buildings and increasing sanitation efforts.
The VA has also deployed mobile vet centers in New York, Los Angeles and other communities hit hard by the virus to target vulnerable vets near public places like parks, transit hubs, and grocery stores.
"This is not a permanent thing, it's really just so we can get through this response while keeping our veterans and service members and families safe, Fisher said.
Mental health experts say it's critical veterans maintain social bonds right now even if they don't receive formal therapy. They say any sort of support system will help vets get through this uncertain time.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.