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VA program helps families help their veterans

WASHINGTON -- "Families At Ease" is a new program developed by Department of Veterans Affairs officials that works with family members and friends of veterans of any era to help them help their veteran get care.

Many veterans are reluctant to get help for the symptoms or difficulties they are having, or may not recognize their need for help.

It could be difficulty at work or at home, problems sleeping, driving too fast, or drinking too much. Or it could just be that they seem irritable or sad.

Whatever the problem, family members are often very aware of veterans' mental health difficulties and want to play a positive role in helping veterans seek the help they need.

The "Families At Ease" educational campaign attempts to reach new veterans through their concerned family members and provides information and support to help the veteran access VA facilities for services and benefits.

A multi-site call center was developed at the Philadelphia and Durham, N.C. VA medical centers to answer calls from family members and friends, as well as veterans.

Callers can get information on how to enroll in VA care. They can also get free telephone-based coaching by a mental health consultant to help when a veteran is reluctant to admit having difficulties.

"We take a positive approach to motivating the Veteran, which means while we work with the family member to motivate the Veteran, the choice to come in is always in the Veteran's hands, " said Dr. Steven Sayers, the "Familes At Ease" director.

Dr. Sayers is a clinical psychologist with the Mental Illness, Research, Education and Clinical Center at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.

"Coaching of family members involves discussing ways to talk to the veteran about the difficulties they are having and offering help without trying to force the veteran to go for this help," he said. "A family member may have one, two or several coaching calls over the span of a few days or weeks in order to try to help them encourage the veteran to seek care."

The program has served about 50 family members and veterans so far and has had positive results. About half of the calls pertained to veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, with the rest serving in Vietnam, the first Gulf War, and other conflicts.

Seventy percent of veterans associated with callers were already enrolled in VA care; the coaching of family members has resulted in an increase from 70 percent to 85 percent for enrollment in VA care.

A significant improvement was seen in veterans receiving mental health care, with an increase from 24 percent to 45 percent, thanks to the coaching of family members.

"The role of family members in supporting treatment of our military veterans is now a key part of the services provided by VA," Dr. Sayers said. " 'Families At Ease' is an example of the innovative strategies now part of VA services."

The pilot phase of the program was launched in Philadelphia and Durham in January. By January 2011, "Families At Ease" will being to take calls during expanded business hours and start the process of becoming a national program.

Following the pilot phase of the new program, "Families At Ease" will be a national program with an additional call center site in Los Angeles.

Family members or veterans can reach "Families At Ease" at 888-823-7458 (8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. ET), by e-mailing, or on the Web at

(Courtesy of Veterans Affairs Public Affairs)