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Mind Games: Mental Health and Virtual Reality

Using virtual reality video games to treat PTSD

Molly Wood Dec 5, 2013
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It’s no secret that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have played video games during down time on bases. But for a number of soldiers, the gaming may continue at home, long after their tours of duty are over — and not for recreational purposes.

With record numbers of soldiers committing suicide and suffering from a host of mental health issues after returning from the battlefield, the military has been investing in all sorts of ways to help veterans with mental illness. As part of our series Mind Games: Mental Health and Virtual Technology, Marketplace Tech looks at how virtual reality simulations are being used to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Skip Rizzo of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies has been working on a 3-D virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift. Soldiers put on the Oculus Rift and go through a kind of therapy called prolonged exposure that predates the invention of video games.

“What we do with virtual reality is instead of relying exclusively on the hidden world of the imagination, we put people in virtual reality simulations of combat environments, and the clinician is actually the ‘gamemaster,’ if you will — they control all the settings,” says Dr. Rizzo, describing the experience a soldier has wearing the Oculus Rift. “A person is driving in a Humvee and it go hit by an IED, well they might start having that person drive down a roadway 5 or 10 times without the IED going off, but then the clinician will say, ‘Okay, I’m going to introduce the IED and I want you to keep narrating what was happening right before.’ And then they hit a button — boom! The IED goes off, and the user goes through the thing that they’ve been avoiding.”

If that sounds like “Call of Duty,” or most other war RPGs, Rizzo admits to the influence.

“The original version of the virtual Iraq or Afghanistan exposure therapy system was derived from the game ‘Full Spectrum Warrior.’ We had access to the archive content and were able to extract a street out of the game, and were leveraging game technology.”

But, Rizzo says, the therapy patients wearing his virtual reality headset are hardly playing a game.

“But, in the end, it’s no longer a game, because in a game you have unlimited lives, your mission is to kill things. In this environment, it’s about exposure to the things that you’ve been haunted by,” he says. “This is a tool to extend the skills of a well trained clinician that understands how to deliver prolonged exposure, and over time, people start to go through scenarios that they never thought they could get through, and they start to feel a sense of empowerment. And, you see the reduction in PTSD symptoms in the other treatment, but then once someone has gotten over the hurdle there, all the sudden, you check on them one month, six months later, you see a continued drop in the symptoms, because they’re basically continuing to heal.”

If you or someone you know would like more information about where to seek Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for PTSD can be found online for locations in New York City, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.

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