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Study: Telephone Motivational Interviewing Helps Convince Vets with Mental Illness to Initiate Treatment

New study shows that telephone based motivational interviewing therapy helps convince people with mental illness to initiate the treatment they need.

Although approximately 52% of US veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have one or more mental illnesses (such as depression, PTSD or anxiety) a significant percentage of these vets ignore the mental health treatment they’re eligible for.

Would motivational interviewing techniques used during brief phone calls to vets in need result in an increase in treatment participation?

That’s what UCSF professor of psychiatry and medicine Karen Seal, MD wanted to know, and to find out she enlisted 73 vets with one or more mental illness to participate in a study.

Half of the subjects were randomly assigned to a group that received 4 phone calls of motivational interviewing over an 8 week period. The other half (the control group) got 4 check-in phone calls over that same period, but no motivational interviewing.

The Results

  • By the end of the study 62% of the vets from the motivational interviewing group had initiated mental health treatment compared to only 26% of the vets from the control group.
  • Subjects from the motivational interviewing group were far more likely to stick with treatment than subjects from the control group.
  • Vets in the motivational interviewing group associated less stigma with mental health care than vets from the control group
  • Vets from the motivational interviewing group decreased their marijuana use more than vets from the control group


Explaining the rationale for the study, Seal noted, “The VA has gone to extraordinary lengths to provide these veterans with state-of-the-art, evidence-based mental health treatment. The irony is that they are not necessarily engaging in this treatment. This study was positioned to try to connect our veterans with the treatments that are available to them.”

She also noted that people who made the phone calls were all masters’ degree level students who received an 8 hour training course, but because no professionals were used, the potential replication costs are moderate.

The full study results are published in General Hospital Psychiatry

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