Servicemembers and family members in the States can now see marriage counselors and psychologists online from home, thanks to two new Tricare programs.

The Tricare Assistance Program, or TRIAP, was launched on a trial basis on Aug. 1 and allows servicemembers and family members ages 18 and older to use Skype and a webcam to go online at home or anywhere that has Internet access to see and talk with a counselor.

TRIAP users have access to marriage counselors and other similar professionals to help them deal with stress, family and relationship problems, anxiety and other issues.

“The [TRIAP] system now is low-level counseling without a diagnosis,” said Tricare Management Activity’s Kathleen Larkin.

Tricare Assistance and the similar new Telemedicine program, which has psychologists to help people deal with depression and other mental health conditions, prescribe medication and make diagnoses, are not modeled after other programs that use online counseling; they are just ways to add to the services Tricare provides, Larkin said.

There have not been discussions about making the services available overseas, but it would not be difficult to do, Larkin said.

Whether TRIAP is continued after its trial period ends April 1, 2010, depends on the number of users and the feedback Tricare gets, Larkin said. It is unclear how many people have logged on to TRIAP because the first report on the program isn’t due until September, Larkin said.

Research has shown that counseling by phone, e-mail or videoconferencing is as effective as face-to-face meetings, said DeeAnna Merz Nagel, a member of an American Counseling Association’s cybercounseling task force. She is also an online counselor and co-founder of the Online Therapy Institute.

“I think it is going to break some of the stigma with seeking help in the military,” Merz Nagel said of the Tricare program.

In a recent blog post, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli touted the new programs while writing about the service’s suicide prevention efforts.

“Your leaders are committed to ensuring you have access to the best possible care without any stigma,” Chiarelli wrote.

Tricare Assistance is free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is a short-term-counseling program that allows counselors to refer patients to more specialized care, a Tricare press release said.

Each Telemedicine session counts as one visit to a mental health professional as provided for in the person’s health plan. The program requires a referral from Tricare and is geared toward people who live in areas where such services are limited. It’s available at more than 230 locations in the States.

“This certainly expands access at locations that are underserved,” Larkin said.

Online counseling may be new for Tricare, but it has been around since the late 1990s via e-mail, and since the early 2000s by videoconferencing, Merz Nagel said. She recommended that people who use online counseling do it from the security and privacy of their home.

Merz Nagel said she has seen clients of all ages online, including an 82-year-old.

“I think the usability of the Web and people having access much more to computers than they did 10 years ago is making it much more user-friendly,” Merz Nagel said.

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