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Originally published July 28, 2011 at 7:02 PM | Page modified July 28, 2011 at 9:01 PM

PTSD app gives veterans a new coping tool

The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have jointly developed the PTSD Coach, a free smartphone application.

Scripps Howard News Service

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Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder have a new mobile resource to help combat the anxiety disorder's many challenges.

The Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs (VA) have jointly developed the PTSD Coach, a free smartphone application. In the wake of trauma, people with PTSD may experience symptoms such as excessive fear about safety, difficulty concentrating, irritability and emotional isolation, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Dr. Sonja Batten, who works on national mental health policy for the VA, says the app was developed with veterans in mind. The app allows users to track and manage symptoms, find support and get reliable information about PSTD. A self-assessment mode has 17 questions — the same ones used in clinical settings — to gauge distress levels.

"We were able to build this app that provides accurate information that helps the veterans assess their symptom level: see whether things are going up or down over time," she explained.

The app also can bring up favorite photos or music. "The idea is to pick photos"or audio that are "inspiring or meaningful to you," Batten said.

The app encourages users to practice coping mechanisms such as progressive muscle relaxation and other essential tools to help relieve symptoms.

The VA reports it treated more than 400,000 veterans for PTSD in 2010.

Dr. Andy Santanello, a psychologist at the Baltimore VA Medical Center, uses this tool with patients who have smartphones.

"One of the challenges is always when you're trying to treat someone in therapy, to get them to use the skills in real life," he said.

Navy veteran Kevin Ivory, who was diagnosed with PTSD after enduring three explosions one month in Iraq, says the condition is "an emotional roller coaster."

The app "allows you to really figure out a way to help yourself outside of the doctor's office. It's proactive care. It's you being involved in your own treatment," Ivory said.

"If you're seeing a therapist, you may only be seeing a therapist for one or two hours a week," said Batten. "The app provides something that people can access 24-hours a day, whenever they need it."

It also suggests users get professional help when they need it.

Both doctors and patients caution that the app doesn't replace professional treatment.

If the distress level is high enough, "we direct [patients] to contact somebody immediately and give them contact numbers to dial immediately," Batten explained.

The free app was introduced in April. As of July, it has been downloaded more than 14,000 times in 41 countries, the VA reports.

It's available on iTunes (for the iPhone and iPad) and the Android Market (for Android devices). For those without a smartphone, visit the National Center for PTSD website at www.ptsd.va.gov for similar information.

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