How Virtual Reality Is Helping Veterans Overcome PTSD

When soldiers return from war, there are invisible scars that follow them from the battlefield back home. Veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder could feel they are locked in a time warp and suffer intermittent moments of hell. Symptoms of PTSD may not surface until months or even years after deployment, which include nightmares, flashbacks, feelings of depression, anxiety, guilt, and a loss of control.

“PTSD is individual for every person and react differently to the violence, but everyone’s well has a certain depth and if they’ve seen too much they will hit that bottom and they will have difficulties functioning in society,” said a retired Army Colonel in an interview.

According to the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs about 11 out of every 100 veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have PTSD in a given year as well as about 12 out of every 100 veterans who served in Desert Storm.

To help our American heroes, medical professionals and VA hospitals are turning to virtual reality to help heal them through gradual exposure therapy. At the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, Bravemind is a virtual reality exposure therapy system has shown to reduce symptoms of PTSD with veterans.

Guided by a therapist, the patient is taken through virtual scenarios that resemble their experience in Afghanastan or Iraq, in order to help them process their traumatic memory and talk through their fears and anxiety. To date, Bravemind has been distributed to over 60 sites including VA hospitals, military bases and university centers.

Photo Credit: Branimir Kvartuc / USC Institute for Creative Technologies

At the Miami VA hospital, they are combining traditional treatments with gradual exposure therapy through VR and have help their patients alter their perception and response to symptoms of PTSD, primarily depression, isolation and anxiety.

“By using a recovery model approach, prolonged exposure therapy and virtual reality, most of our patients who complete this treatment don’t experience the same level of stress and intensity when faced with painful memories,” said Dr. Pamela Slone-Fama, Miami VA post-traumatic stress clinical team staff psychologist in a blog by the US Department of Veteran’s Affairs. “Prolonged exposure therapy is what makes this approach to PTSD recovery so effective.”

During their VR session, the patient will be connected to a VR system that includes video goggles, a plastic M-4 rifle, remote control to a virtual Humvee and a chair. During the 30-60 minute session, patients are asked to discuss how they are feeling and recount their memory. These VR sessions can be intense and they make sure to process their experience before they leave the session, Slone-Fama said.

“This part of the therapy helps patients understand the events that happened to them and allows them to process the entire memory. VR sessions can be intense, so before wrapping up we always make sure the patients are ok to leave. Safety is always important,” said Dr. Slone-Fama.

While a few years ago virtual reality systems would run in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, with the advancements and the ability to purchase VR goggles for under $200, VR systems could easily become more affordable for healthcare systems to implement into their treatment options.


If you or someone you know is a Veteran suffering from PTSD, please contact Veterans Resource Center of America and please reach out for help.

Photos courtesy of USC Institute for Creative Technologies

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Written by:
Tishin is a technology journalist and correspondent. She has written for TechCrunch, Demand Studios and Fitness, and has regular network segments on local Phoenix affiliate stations. She holds a Master's degree in Clinical and Sport psychology, and has covered many areas of technology ranging from 3D printing and game development to neurotech and funding for over 15 years.
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