Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

VA Therapy: Greater Focus on Therapeutic Relationship Could Improve VAMC Outcomes

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

VA Therapy: Greater Focus on Therapeutic Relationship Could Improve VAMC Outcomes

Article excerpt


ATLANTA -- It may be time for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Veterans Health Administration to consider new ways of integrating its approaches to mental health care to better serve its patients, Dr. Harold Kudler said at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.

The VA's original mental health program began as one designed to bridge a gap in services for the thousands of American veterans in need of psychiatric care at the end of World War I. The program, as promoted by Dr. Thomas Salmon, involved the concept of mental hygiene, which encompasses a dynamic balance between personal, environmental, and biological factors, and includes the possibility of recovery.

However, the release of the DSM-III in 1980--which established the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder--marked a shift toward the "medicalization" of mental health. This medicalized approach largely left the person, the family, and the community out of the mental health care equation, according to Dr. Kudler, adjunct associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, Durham, N.C.

Readjustment Counseling Services (RCS), also called vet centers, emerged as an answer to this problem.

"Concurrent almost exactly in time with the release of DSM-III and its medicalization and inclusion of PTSD was a rising awareness of postdeployment mental health issues among Vietnam veterans in very human terms," explained Dr. Kudler, also chief consultant for mental health services at the Veterans Health Administration. 'As VA medical centers [VAMCs] embraced the Zeitgeist of medicalizing mental health, the vet center system was designed to engage veterans on their own terms rather than in medical terms, in very deliberate ways."

Readjustment Counseling Services provided a critically important alternative to the VAMCs, as they approached deployment mental health in personal, family, community, and cultural terms, he said.

Vet centers are "specifically not medical," Dr. Kudler said, noting that they are physically separate from VAMCs, have separate administrative and fiscal structures, have separate training and systems of records, and involve different paths for different veterans.

He described these differences as "good fences," each of which helped to establish the vet centers as "a critically important pathway for veterans of Vietnam and other military operations before and since." Still, the emphasis on distinguishing vet centers from VAMCs may reflect "the underlying tension of a conceptual bifurcation in the VA's approach to deployment mental health, which is rooted in the debates of late 20th-century mental health and continuing today," Dr. Kudler said.

Emphasis on evidence

The "essential missing link" in the VAMC approach is the therapeutic relationship. That is, the VA's Clinical Practice Guidelines reflect "landmark success" in identifying and disseminating evidence-based best treatments. In fact, the VA is recognized by the Institute of Medicine as a world leader in training its own mental health staff in evidence-based treatment for PTSD, he noted.

But most evidence-based treatments disseminated by the VA are manualized therapies, such as Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing therapy. Training typically focuses on mastering specific skills and maintaining adherence to the manuals rather than on the strength and nature of the therapeutic relationship, and on the disciplined assessment and management of the therapeutic relationship as a key component of psychotherapy, he said. …

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