Clinical psychologist Jean Beckham has spent her career working with patients experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is now contributing to the critical work of supporting the mental and physical health of veterans. A Senior VA Research Career Scientist at the Durham VAMC, Dr. Beckham is interested in the psychological and physical effects of PTSD as well as helping those with psychiatric disorders to quit smoking.

Dr. Beckham’s current project partially supported through IMR is a study of homeless veterans in Durham who smoke and need support to quit smoking. Without interventions, the smoking cessation rate in this group of veterans is almost zero but Dr. Beckham is hoping to change that with the help of mobile health (mHealth) technologies and smoking cessation counseling support. Her current project uses “mobile contingency management” to keep in touch with participants in the study. Each participant was given a phone that they used to video record themselves blowing into a CO monitor, which also connects to the phone. The data was transmitted to a secure server and participants were given a monetary incentive if they had been abstinent from smoking at the check-in. On average, participants earned $300 over the course of nine weeks. Additionally, the participants engaged in five phone counseling sessions which focused on preventing relapse into smoking behavior. The data from this study are being analyzed now.

To facilitate the technology-driven work of Dr. Beckham and her team, IMR supports a computer programmer who develops the applications as well as maintains the security and privacy of the patients’ information throughout the study. Dr. Beckham notes that having such technical expertise has been central to this project and would have been difficult without IMR’s help.

In addition to smoking cessation studies, several other research projects pertaining to veterans’ health are ongoing within the Traumatic Stress and Health Research Laboratory at the Durham VA Health Care System and Duke University School of Medicine, where Dr. Beckham is a faculty member. These investigators are examining and seeking effective methods to reduce harmful behaviors associated with PTSD, including anger and aggression, non-suicidal self-injury, and alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine use. Looking ahead, Dr. Beckham anticipates important research opportunities through the Million Veteran Program, which is building a robust electronic health record database to study how genes affect health. Along with a very large research team from VA and the Department of Energy, Dr. Beckham is specifically interested in analyzing multiple features of electronic health records (such as pharmacy records, natural language processing, and medical procedure history) to develop better clinical algorithms to predict suicidal behavior. Future research will also explore whether there may be any genetic variants associated with suicidal behavior.

While the mentally traumatic effects of combat and military service have been documented for generations, the VA’s prioritization of mental health research and treatment is making the way for medical researchers like Dr. Beckham to continue to improve how doctors and laypeople can identify and support those experiencing PTSD. IMR is proud to support the advancement of the mental and physical well-being of veterans and their families.