By On June 21st, 2012

PTSD Treatment: Can Virtual Reality Erase What Really Happened?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has long been the scourge of our heroes in uniform. By some estimates, 20% of soldiers return from serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD. In the current world climate, where soldiers often serve three tours of duty on top of each other, PTSD is becoming an even more serious issue than it has been for previous generations of soldiers.

Military suicides continue to be a very serious problem. The suicide rate in 2012 alone has roughly equated to one-per-day. It’s clear that there is a need for new therapies to treat and diagnose PTSD. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently testified before a Senate panel that he is dissatisfied in the way that mental health cases in the military are diagnosed and treated. However, there are differing opinions on how to best treat PTSD.

Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) and a Pasadena counseling center for first-responders are experimenting with a new way of treating PTSD: virtual reality.

Imagine the most realistic war game of all time, in which soldiers experience the sights, sounds and even the smells of combat. A programmer is able to use a supercomputer to queue up a barrage of hellish experiences that mimic the events that might have caused soldiers to experience trauma.

In the game’s prototype, a patient can use goggles and a joystick to simulate driving through a warzone. The experience includes a sniper attacking the convoy and a virtual comrade taking shrapnel in the arms and face. Smells of gasoline and burning flesh circulate through hidden air vents to fully immerse the patient in the hell fires of war. However horrific the environment might seem, it is designed to be a control environment in which symptoms can be managed.

The program which was designed by the US military and Hollywood special-effects artists, in conjunction with psychologists Skip Rizzo and Galen Buckwalter, hopes to not only serve as PTSD treatment for soldiers who have been traumatized during combat, but also help to prevent PTSD. It is thought that if soldiers and first-responders train in virtual reality prior to entering a war zone, it can help desensitize them to the conditions of battle. In effect, virtual reality could help inoculate soldiers against PTSD in advance of traumatic events.

But is desensitization therapy really the answer? For some, desensitization therapy, can seem cold and calculating, and even recall the dystopian imagery of A Clockwork Orange. Others are sure to take issue with the gamification of war, as treatments like this are clearly designed to make war seem like a video game.  Rob Horning wrote in The New Inquiry, “Gamification is awful for many reasons, not least in the way it seeks to transform us into atomized laboratory rats, reduce us to the sum total of our incentivized behaviors.”

Though psychological treatments and psychopharmacology might offer quantifiable results, some feel that they may simply mask soldiers’ pain rather than heal their mental wounds. Joseph Bobrow, founder and president of a veterans retreat called Coming Home Project, wrote in the Huffington Post that the future of military suicide prevention programs will be “psychiatry-friendly but not based on compartmentalized, medical models of mental disorder and mental health.” Instead Bobrow advocates a community-based program to combat, with friendship and spirituality, the despair and hopelessness that leads soldiers down the spiral to suicide. “It takes a community to welcome, weather and help transform such unbearable experiences and feelings. To enable veterans to feel that they belong, they matter, are accepted, and understood.”


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