Virtual reality (VR) isn’t just for gamers. The technology, which provides an opportunity for immersion within a simulated 3-D environment complete with multisensory feedback, is changing the field of mental healthcare.
Duke University Virtual Reality Treatment Program and University of Southern California (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies are just two of the organizations using virtual reality for a range of mental health issues. Virtual reality therapy has been effective in helping patients with autism, phobias, substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, and executive functioning issues. It has also shown promise in treating patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – including soldiers returning from battle.
A Safe Battlefield
Mental health professionals have used exposure therapy and imaginal therapy to treat PTSD for decades. However, treating PTSD due to war-time trauma presents a unique set of challenges. It is implausible for providers to recreate a similar trigger environment and challenging for many patients to adequately visualize the combat zone. With virtual reality, the battlefield becomes a safe yet realistic place to visit and face fears. Additionally, the users have control over the scenario – the timing, environment, feedback, and adaptations.
Through Bravemind – the virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) program for soldiers at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies – clinicians “gradually immerse patients into virtual environments representative of their traumatic experiences in a controlled, stepwise fashion by providing the capability to control multi-sensory stimuli and monitor the intensity of the patients’ stress responses via advanced brain imaging and psychophysiological assessment techniques.” The patients wear VR goggles and are immersed in a Middle-Eastern environment. Additionally, sounds, smells, and vibrations enhance the authenticity of the user’s experience.
During treatment, clinicians monitor, measure and record patient responses. They can also learn more about PTSD and work toward developing more effective means of treatment. Soldiers have reported that while at first, it seemed impossible to revisit the memories and triggers of combat. However, with repeated and gradual exposure, the reactions eventually subsided, and they were able to return to more normal functioning.
The Need for Effective PTSD Treatments
The numbers of military veterans affected by PTSD is difficult to pinpoint. While public education has lessened the stigma associated with wartime trauma, soldiers often avoid seeking treatment. Additionally, PTSD symptoms may arise at any point during one’s lifetime. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates of the number of veterans with PTSD ranges from 11-30 percent of those who served in Iraq, the Gulf War, and the Vietnam War (VA).
To address the need for combat PTSD treatment, the Institute for Creative Technologies has expanded a portion of the Bravemind project – Virtual Iraq/Afghanistan Exposure Therapy -- to more than 60 sites including military bases, universities and VA hospitals. The program has gained endorsement as an “evidence-based” treatment and has randomized controlled studies in process. The Bravemind Exposure Therapy software has been provided free for clinical and research use – a testament to the collective goal of the developers, researchers and institute: to help heal those who risk their lives for their country.
For more on virtual reality and PTSD, see American Psychiatric Association, Psychology Today, and American Psychological Association Monitor on Psychology.
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