Monday, October 3, 2011

Apps to Help Vets with PTSD: a Review of PTSD Coach

At HHN, I am definitely the technology nerd. I love learning about new software, using social media, following online trends, the works. So, when I heard that the VA helped develop an app for those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), I was very excited to see what it had to offer.
I don't have PTSD. I'll make that clear right away. So my review of this product is going to be tainted from the start. But while I don't suffer from PTSD myself, I have seen the effects of this disorder in the veterans we help at Healing Heroes Network. I know how crippling it can be and that there is never a "one-size-fits-all" treatment. This app is not intended for me, but I still wanted to see how it worked to judge if I would recommend it to others with PTSD to try.
First of all, the app is called the PTSD Coach. PTSD Coach is an app created by the National Center for PTSD run by the Department of Veteran Affairs to help with the ever-increasing PTSD diagnoses of veterans returning from combat. It's free on iTunes to use with an iPad, iPhone, or Android phone.
When you first open up the app, it asks you to choose some of your favorite songs, pictures, and family or friends as "contacts." These are used so that later when you're feeling stressed, you have relaxing music, a familiar picture, or a caring voice of a loved one to help calm down.
After that, the app brings you to the Home page and gives you options on how to proceed. You can learn about PTSD, take a self-assessment, look at tips and methods to manage symptoms, or find support from medical providers or hotlines.
I clicked first on the "Learn" button. This took me to a topics page about PTSD and Professional Treatments. Questions included "What is PTSD," "Who develops PTSD," "PTSD Treatment," and others. The articles are concise but fairly comprehension. I especially liked that the app doesn't use too many technical terms and is writing like a friend talking. It voiced important questions and responded with well thought-out answers.
Next up, I took the self-assessment where the app asks 17 questions to gage your level of PTSD. I took the test twice to see how it responded to different answers. The first time I took it, I lied about my levels of anxiety and said I was often affected by thoughts of my trauma. PTSD Coach suggested that I not judge myself for my feelings, but recommended I seek professional treatments. Again, the wording is very compassionate and understanding, which could make a diagnosis easier to accept.
Then I went and answered truthfully about my levels of anxiety--low. The app responded that while I might not be diagnosed professional with PTSD if I seek treatment, it doesn't mean that my stress isn't real or that I'm not suffering. It's this understanding tone that I think is really remarkable to portray in a technology that could feel detached and cold.
After your initial assessment, you can choose to have automatic reminders to retake the test to continuously gage your stress. This is a novel feature to let the user see their own answers as facts to prove if some method of relaxation is or is not working.
The "Manage" page brings you to a list of possible things you could be suffering from at that moment. Some of these are "Reminded of Trauma," "Disconnected from People," "Angry," among others. You can select what is bothering you and the app provides you with different means to help.
I selected "Disconnected with Reality" and was first asked to gage my level of distress from 0 (no distress) to 10 (worse distress imaginable). I chose 7 to begin and it showed me some relaxation techniques. I focused on different breathing techniques, alternating between tightening and relaxing my muscles, and hold an ice cube and focus on all the sensations holding it produced: wet, cold, tingling, melty, etc.
These things did allow me to clear my head and focus on my body. While I don't actually suffer from a disconnect with reality, I did still feel more relaxed and felt refreshed. I was aware of my surroundings and was very calm. I have no idea how effective these strategies would be to others suffering from PTSD (especially in that everyone experiences things different and have different ways of coping), but I'd have to imagine it would, at the least, it would help a little bit.
Find Support
Lastly, I went to the "Find Support" page. This offered a reference of places to call like 911 or the Veteran's Crisis Hotline if you're are in crisis, or numbers to call if you just need to talk to someone. There are few links for resources for veterans to use to find medical providers. While the page isn't as stimulating as the others, it is nonetheless a useful thing to have in the app.
(Video made by ABC 15 about the PTSD Coach)
After messing around with the app for a while, I started to notice things I liked and didn't about the app. Everything has basic pros and cons, and the PTSD Coach is no different. Here are the one's that I spotted.
Pro: The dynamics of the app being on a portable device like a phone or tablet is astounding in itself--you can take this "coach" everywhere you go. This is a high mark in its favor.
Con: Some of the relaxation strategies feel repetitive. There are really only so many ways I can breathe differently. If one breathing technique isn't working to calm me down, it's possible that another one might, but I'd rather try something else before you push it again.
Pro: The language in the articles is very familiar and reassuring. I can't stress enough how unstressful it was to read about PTSD on this app. PTSD Coach almost feels like a compassionate friend helping you through a rough time.
Overall, I believe the PTSD Coach is a very useful app to have at one's disposal. It provides valuable information, useful calming techniques, and provides frequent assessments so you can monitor your healing process and see evidence of what is working for you and what isn't. It is important to remember that the PTSD isn't a replacement for a counselor or professional diagnosis or treatments, but a tool to work alongside those things. I would recommend the app for anyone with PTSD from serving or their loved ones interested in helping in the healing process.

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