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Telehealth fosters healing among survivors of military sexual trauma

Aug 31, 2023Aug 31, 2023

Two VA therapists are leading a virtual group to foster community and coping skills for survivors of military sexual trauma (MST). The group is helpful because of its virtual setting and powerful because it includes survivors of all genders.

Military sexual trauma refers to sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced during military service. VA provides Veterans and certain other former service members with free treatment for any physical or mental health conditions related to MST. However, some survivors of MST may have difficulties coming to a VA facility, sitting in a waiting room full of other Veterans or discussing trauma-related issues in person with a provider. Transportation and geographic barriers can also impact someone’s ability to engage in face-to-face care and connect with other survivors of MST.

For these reasons, some survivors of MST may avoid in-person therapy or support groups. But the Skills Training in Affective and Interpersonal Regulation (STAIR) group uses telehealth to help Veterans and former service members overcome these obstacles to care and heal from their trauma. STAIR can also provide them with the skills they need to be more comfortable with in-person medical and mental health services at VA facilities.

Dr. Sari Gold, psychologist and program manager at the VISN 20 Clinical Resource Hub based at Boise VA, leads the STAIR group for survivors of MST. Her partner in the project is Michele Keller, program manager for outpatient substance use disorders with Montana VA.

Gold has been working with survivors of MST her entire career. She has been using telehealth to treat Veterans since 2012. “Telehealth can be a really powerful way of getting care to people who wouldn’t have otherwise had access to it,” Gold said.

The STAIR group is open to survivors of MST in Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Montana. The members must receive a referral to the group from a mental health or primary care provider. All topics and information shared are completely private and confidential.

The group aims to build skills that help participants engage in trauma-focused therapy. It provides a safe space for MST survivors to support each other in their healing process and it reinforces that they are not alone.

The group’s geographical and gender diversity fosters connections among the survivors. Members gain a wider perspective from fellow participants from different regions and cultures. Some group members share how they apply the skills they’ve learned in their communities. In this way, the group offers healing in a way not always seen in traditional in-person group therapy.

“The virtual aspect can offer a gradual exposure to the gender identity of the perpetrator. It may ease survivors into interacting effectively with people of that gender identity,” Gold said.

VA offers many effective therapies to help survivors heal from the impact of MST. However, some survivors are not ready to engage in one-on-one therapy or treatment that involves addressing memories of trauma directly. The STAIR group can help by teaching survivors of MST skills to manage difficult emotions and communicate effectively with others.

When survivors of MST gain confidence in their skills, they are often ready to take the next step in their healing journey. For some, this may involve discussing and processing the memories of their experiences. Survivors of MST may also start feeling more comfortable with in-person care at VA facilities. They can use their skills to feel more comfortable and participate more effectively in other treatments.

“It’s been really beautiful to be a part of and encourage a process of connection and healing. There’s something really valuable about connecting with people who’ve been through something that you feel so alone with,” she added.

Learn more about MST and treatment options for survivors.

If you’re a Veteran in crisis or concerned about one, call 988. You’ll be connected with one of our caring qualified Veterans Crisis Line responders for confidential help. Many of the responders are Veterans themselves. This service is private, free and available 24/7.

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