Jan. 20, 2011 at 11:22 PM ET
One of the best things about virtual reality is that it isn't real — and the Pentagon is taking advantage of that fact by offering a virtual realm that can take combat vets and their loved ones through the whole cycle of post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD and depression are thought to affect 10 to 30 percent of the U.S. military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, depending on how you define the disorder. For some vets, the trauma left behind from combat experiences can lead to alcohol abuse, aggressive behavior, family problems or even suicide.
Typically, therapists help PTSD sufferers get through the experience by having them relive and talk through stressful experiences in a safe environment. That's where virtual reality can make a difference: For several years now, therapists have been using online worlds such as Second Life to simulate the stresses in a therapeutic context. Studies have shown that such simulations can lead to a clinically significant lessening of PTSD symptoms. Some researchers are even using simulations to identify potential PTSD sufferers —and deal with their problems — even before the warfighters are sent into combat.
Therapists only wish that vets would take greater advantage of the treatment tools at hand.
"Far too many of our warriors come home and, despite difficulties they are having, are not going to come and see a psychologist, a social worker, a psychiatrist," clinical psychologist Greg Reger said this week in a news release announcing the establishment of the Pentagon's virtual world for vets.
The world was created in Second Life by the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, also known as T2. Reger, who is acting chief of the center's innovative technology applications division, said the T2 Virtual PTSD Experience can help tech-savvy warfighters and their families learn more about PTSD in the comfort of their own homes.
Second Life gives users the opportunity to create virtual-reality avatars, and then send those avatars walking (or flying) through computer-graphic environments that are similar to real-world locales. On T2's turf, for example, avatars can visit a welcome center anonymously and learn more about the psychological difficulties associated with combat deployment.
"The cornerstone of the experience is when they leave that area and go into an area that teaches about the causes of post-traumatic stress disorcer," Reger said. "They enter a space where they get into a Humvee and are taken through a computer-generated simulation that includes [intense fighting on an Afghan street and] an explosion."
While this is happening, the virtual visitors receive audio instruction that puts the stressful experiences in perspective. There's even a simulation that's set in a Stateside shopping mall — because many PTSD sufferers say they feel heightened anxiety when they're in a mall or other public gathering place.
The T2 experience isn't just about stress, however. The virtual environment also offers relaxation zones, guided meditations and forums where real-life vets can talk about their experiences using the computer-generated interface. "Second Life provides the opportunity to interact with anyone who is in that space," Reger said. "Any warrior who goes in there will be able to talk with whoever is in that space."
The center's aim isn't to keep stressed-out vets bottled up in cyberspace. Rather, the goal is to provide an virtual avenue that leads to a healthier life in the real world. "We created an environment that lets people learn by doing, rather than reading text and watching videos on two-dimensional websites," said Kevin Holloway, the psychologist who led T2's virtual-world develoment. "They can learn something new each time they visit."
Click on the links below to learn more about T2:
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