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Telepsychology on the rez



A new facility designed to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, will open in the coming weeks on the Flathead Indian Reservation, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) efforts to extend services to reservations and other rural areas.

"The need on all reservations is extremely high," says W.J. "Buck" Richardson, the minority outreach coordinator for the VA's Rocky Mountain Network, "because you don't have the outreach, you don't have the care, you don't have the services, and the distance to them is often too far to travel."

According to the VA, military enlistment among American Indians is the highest, per capita, of any other race or ethnic group in the country.

The new treatment facility, located in the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes' Tribal Complex in Pablo, aims to ensure that veterans receive their VA benefits, including any medical or psychological care they may need. One day a week, Richardson says, the facility will operate PTSD clinics using videoconferencing technology to connect veterans with VA counselors at the University of Colorado.


"It's not just for tribal veterans," Richardson says. "It's for any veterans who come and ask for help with their benefits. It doesn't matter if they're tribal members or not."

"Telemedicine," and specifically "telepsychology," is increasingly used by the VA to reach veterans in far-flung communities. The Rocky Mountain Network conducts more than 16,000 telemedicine visits every year in its largely rural nine-state region. Facilities employing the technology have opened on reservations across the West, Richardson says, through partnerships with the VA, Indian Health Services and local tribal health agencies. In Montana, the Flathead and Blackfeet reservations are the last to receive them.

Roger Shourds, a tribal member and Vietnam veteran who facilitates the reservation's independent PTSD Talking Circle, welcomes the facility, but warns that effective outreach will be critical due to the aversion many tribal people have toward government agencies. Shourds also questions the value of videoconferencing, which, he says, can be too impersonal.

Still, "It's another tool," he says.

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