Importance: Suicide rates are rising disproportionately in rural counties, a concerning pattern as the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified suicide risk factors in these regions and exacerbated barriers to mental health care access. Although telehealth has the potential to improve access to mental health care, telehealth's effectiveness for suicide-related outcomes remains relatively unknown.
Objective: To evaluate the association between the escalated distribution of the US Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA's) video-enabled tablets during the COVID-19 pandemic and rural veterans' mental health service use and suicide-related outcomes.
Design, setting, and participants: This retrospective cohort study included rural veterans who had at least 1 VA mental health care visit in calendar year 2019 and a subcohort of patients identified by the VA as high-risk for suicide. Event studies and difference-in-differences estimation were used to compare monthly mental health service utilization for patients who received VA tablets during COVID-19 with patients who were not issued tablets over 10 months before and after tablet shipment. Statistical analysis was performed from November 2021 to February 2022.
Exposure: Receipt of a video-enabled tablet.
Main outcomes and measures: Mental health service utilization outcomes included psychotherapy visits, medication management visits, and comprehensive suicide risk evaluations (CSREs) via video and total visits across all modalities (phone, video, and in-person). We also analyzed likelihood of emergency department (ED) visit, likelihood of suicide-related ED visit, and number of VA's suicide behavior and overdose reports (SBORs).
Results: The study cohort included 13 180 rural tablet recipients (11 617 [88%] men; 2161 [16%] Black; 301 [2%] Hispanic; 10 644 [80%] White; mean [SD] age, 61.2 [13.4] years) and 458 611 nonrecipients (406 545 [89%] men; 59 875 [13%] Black or African American; 16 778 [4%] Hispanic; 384 630 [83%] White; mean [SD] age, 58.0 [15.8] years). Tablets were associated with increases of 1.8 psychotherapy visits per year (monthly coefficient, 0.15; 95% CI, 0.13-0.17), 3.5 video psychotherapy visits per year (monthly coefficient, 0.29; 95% CI, 0.27-0.31), 0.7 video medication management visits per year (monthly coefficient, 0.06; 95% CI, 0.055-0.062), and 0.02 video CSREs per year (monthly coefficient, 0.002; 95% CI, 0.002-0.002). Tablets were associated with an overall 20% reduction in the likelihood of an ED visit (proportion change, -0.012; 95% CI, -0.014 to -0.010), a 36% reduction in the likelihood of suicide-related ED visit (proportion change, -0.0017; 95% CI, -0.0023 to -0.0013), and a 22% reduction in the likelihood of suicide behavior as indicated by SBORs (monthly coefficient, -0.0011; 95% CI, -0.0016 to -0.0005). These associations persisted for the subcohort of rural veterans the VA identifies as high-risk for suicide.
Conclusions and relevance: This cohort study of rural US veterans with a history of mental health care use found that receipt of a video-enabled tablet was associated with increased use of mental health care via video, increased psychotherapy visits (across all modalities), and reduced suicide behavior and ED visits. These findings suggest that the VA and other health systems should consider leveraging video-enabled tablets for improving access to mental health care via telehealth and for preventing suicides among rural residents.