With four major military bases as part of Joint Base San Antonio, Bexar County is home to one of the largest active and retired military populations in the nation. To the people who care for wounded, ill, and injured military members and veterans, the daily role of caregiver can prove a heavy burden.

The estimated 5.5 million people nationwide who care for injured and returning military veterans in the United States can end up feeling overwhelmed physically, emotionally, and financially. A national report by the RAND Corporation indicates that the prevalence of depression among military caregivers may be up to four times higher than the U.S. adult population.

They are “the hidden heroes,” said Dr. Dawn Velligan, professor of psychiatry in UT Health San Antonio’s Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine.

To address the mental health needs of military caregivers, UT Health San Antonio and its Military Health Institute plan to conduct a 12-week pilot program to provide telehealth counseling for caregivers in 50 military families.

Through a grant from USAA, participants will use computer and smartphone technology, allowing them to interact face-to-face with licensed therapists without having to leave their homes or pay for counseling services. The pilot program began evaluating participating military caregivers on July 1.

“They are providing so much care and are helping the country so much,” said Velligan, the pilot program’s principal investigator. “Many of them are isolated, don’t want to burden their friends. They really have no one to talk to about their circumstances [or] the wide range of emotion they feel [while] taking care of these people.”

A report by the nonprofit group Mental Health America stated there is only one mental health provider for every 566 people in the U.S. In Texas, access is even worse – one mental health provider for every 1,100 individuals.

Access to mental health treatment for those who need it is already a complicated endeavor: The caregiver may also be responsible for children or aging parents, and may also work outside of the home, which makes finding time for treatment and counseling seem almost impossible. That coupled with lack of access to care may create insurmountable obstacles for many caregivers in seeking mental health treatment.

Offering the therapy free of charge and as an online or telephone video visit, where participants are able to access services while driving in their car or at home, eliminates some of the barriers to getting help.

Velligan said that use of online communication tools will not be an unfamiliar means of interaction for service members and their families, as they “are used to having [online video] conversations during deployments and conversing long distance. They feel comfortable with those platforms.”

During the pilot program, military caregivers will participate in evidence-based therapies that meet their specific needs.

The project seeks to demonstrate that counseling conducted electronically is an effective treatment method for military caregivers. Due to state licensure constraints, the program currently is offered only to Texas residents. Once its effectiveness has been demonstrated, the goal is to expand it nationally.

The study is currently enrolling military caregivers, who may call or email Dr. Cynthia Sierra at (210) 562-5215 or sierrac@uthscsa.edu for more information.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.