A new study finds that rural veterans with mental-health issues were likelier to get online treatment after receiving smart devices from the Department of Veteran Affairs, reducing their risk of suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The VA-sponsored study of 471,791 rural veterans with a history of mental health care was published last week in the Journal of the America Medical Association. It found that 13,180 rural veterans who received a video-enabled tablet during COVID-19 were 36% less likely to make a suicide-related visit to an emergency room and 22% less likely to show suicidal behavior.
Veterans who received tablets made an average of 1.8 more psychotherapy visits per year and 3.5 more telehealth psychotherapy visits per year than before, the study found.
“These findings suggest that the VA and other health systems should consider leveraging video-enabled tablets for improving access to mental health care via telehealth and for preventing suicides among rural residents,” researchers wrote in the study published last Wednesday.
Of the 106,451 tablets with data plans in circulation as of September, the VA issued 93% during the pandemic and sent one-third of those to rural areas.
Only veterans who did not own a device with broadband or cellular internet service, could not travel easily to the VA, and were able to operate a tablet were eligible to receive one.
The report noted that U.S. suicide rates are at their highest since World War II, and veterans are one-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide than nonveterans.
Rural areas are particularly at risk because of higher unemployment and lack of health care resources in rural areas, problems the VA said have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kritee Gujral, a health economist at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, conducted the study with five other researchers.
The analysis of VA health care data, conducted from November to February, focused on the veterans who received tablets between March 16, 2020, and April 30, 2021.