Tweeting traumatic stress: An online initiative for PTSD
It’s impossible to know how many troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD, but estimates suggest that the rates are unprecedented. The number of PTSD diagnoses have “risen steadily” in the past few years, according to Veterans Affairs, and one team of researchers is warning that 35 percent of returning troops will be afflicted. But less than a quarter of vets seek help, meaning that too few are being diagnosed – let alone treated.
The Pentagon is heeding warnings about the crisis, by hiring more mental health staff and funding more suicide-prevention programs. They’ve even launched a $50-million-dollar research project to determine the underlying causes of veteran suicide, which reached an all-time high this summer. And, as I reported for Danger Room in August, they’re also trying to prevent PTSD before it starts, using pharmaceutical intervention to short-circuit stress reactions.
But pill-popping prevention is a ways off. For now, there’s another initiative harnessing 21st century tech to bolster soldier wellness. The program is Vision 21, and its founders are using online social networking to help vets reintegrate into day-to-day life. Ali Reza Manouchehri , the CEO of MetroStar Systems, who launched the program, tells me that Vision 21 is for the Gen-Y Warrior. “We’re living in a new era, where people, especially those between 18-24, are connected like they never used to be,” he says. “Why not reach out to them using Twitter, using YouTube, using the web?”
MetroStar, a company that specializes in government software innovation, came up with the idea of an online PTSD project nearly two years ago, at the urging of Col. Randall Falk, a National Guard medical director who organized a meeting-of-the-minds around social networking in the military. A group of experts, from Israeli defense staffers to cognitive scientists, batted around ideas on how the Internet could help stress mitigation, both overseas and back home.
From there, MetroStar got a grant from the Kansas National Guard, and started working on an Internet hub for troops, commanders and military families. Members can log in, then search using a drill-down engine that zeroes in on others in similar circumstances. Ross Beurmann, now home after serving in Iraq, says he found other vets who were parents reintegrating into family life. “I’m a father of two, so I wanted to get advice from other people in my position,” he says. “And I’m not a religious person, so maybe hearing someone who coped with scripture wouldn’t help me.”
The segmented search allows for quick, on-target, human connections, and personal advice based on individual circumstances. Delineations include spirituality, age and family, and commanders can also search for tips on helping their troops manage war-time distress. The program also incorporates Facebook groups, Twitter updates, video journals and interactive games. And Vision 21 will be accessible on mobile phones and handsets in addition to computers, so that troops overseas are more likely to have access.
Right now, the Vision 21 website is still a pilot project. But MetroStar has big plans for the near future: they’ve been sub-contracted by Lockheed Martin to develop a publicly-accessible search engine on the stress reduction, veteran reintegration and PTSD treatment programs and research going on around the world.
But for Beurmann, the biggest benefit to Vision 21 isn’t the advice or the networking. It’s the potential to minimize PTSD stigma. “Trust me, you can lose your job if they find out you’re dealing with post-traumatic stress. Troops are scared to admit it,” he says. “The anonymous element of these interactive tools is huge, because more people might start reaching out for help.”