USA — ‘Virtual World’ Helps With Post-traumatic Stress

WASHINGTON — The Defense Depart­ment is using vir­tu­al-world inter­ac­tiv­i­ty to edu­cate and help warfight­ers and oth­ers who are reluc­tant to seek more direct care to deal with post-trau­mat­ic stress, said an offi­cial at the Nation­al Cen­ter for Tele­health and Tech­nol­o­gy, also known as “T2.”

T2 Virtual PTSD Experience, based in the internationally populated virtual world called Second Life
The wel­come cen­ter for the T2 Vir­tu­al PTSD Expe­ri­ence, based in the inter­na­tion­al­ly pop­u­lat­ed vir­tu­al world called Sec­ond Life. This immer­sive, inter­ac­tive learn­ing activ­i­ty is a pub­lic site designed for warfight­ers and their fam­i­lies. It edu­cates vis­i­tors about com­bat-relat­ed post-trau­mat­ic stress and offers resources for seek­ing help.
Pho­to cour­tesy of the Nation­al Cen­ter for Tele­health and Tech­nol­o­gy
Click to enlarge

Dur­ing a recent tele­phone brief­ing from the center’s head­quar­ters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Taco­ma, Wash., Greg Reger — a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and act­ing chief of the center’s inno­v­a­tive tech­nol­o­gy appli­ca­tions divi­sion — said the kinds of immer­sive expe­ri­ences avail­able in vir­tu­al worlds, such as the inter­na­tion­al­ly pop­u­lat­ed vir­tu­al world called Sec­ond Life, are designed to appeal to tech-savvy ser­vice mem­bers and their families. 

“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,” Reger said. 

Accord­ing to the center’s web­site, many researchers have declared trau­mat­ic brain injury and post-trau­mat­ic stress to be the “sig­na­ture wounds” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 19 per­cent of ser­vice mem­bers return­ing from com­bat screen pos­i­tive for psy­cho­log­i­cal health prob­lems, and just more than half seek help, the web­site says, not­ing that bar­ri­ers for those that don’t seek help include per­ceived stig­ma, phys­i­cal access bar­ri­ers and lim­it­ed resources. 

“There’s a lot of great work going on at DOD to address stig­ma, but it is still an issue,” Reger said. “So we des­per­ate­ly need solu­tions to get resources into the hands of those who will not give us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to pro­vide them basic care.” 

Vir­tu­al worlds are com­put­er-based sim­u­lat­ed envi­ron­ments where users, as rep­re­sen­ta­tions of them­selves called avatars, can inter­act with each oth­er and build and inter­act with objects and activities. 

“An avatar is basi­cal­ly a com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tion of one­self,” Reger said, adding that users cre­ate these com­put­er char­ac­ters to nav­i­gate around the envi­ron­ment and to explore and learn. 

The T2 Vir­tu­al PTSD Expe­ri­ence, based in Sec­ond Life, is an immer­sive, inter­ac­tive learn­ing activ­i­ty that is open to the pub­lic and edu­cates vis­i­tors about com­bat-relat­ed post-trau­mat­ic stress. 

The graph­ics-dense immer­sive sim­u­la­tion requires a broad­band Inter­net con­nec­tion, he said. Users must down­load a copy of the Sec­ond Life world and then can access the world from any com­put­er with a broad­band connection. 

When avatars come into the vir­tu­al space, Reger said, they land at a wel­come cen­ter that offers infor­ma­tion about dif­fer­ent deploy­ment-relat­ed dif­fi­cul­ties and a map of activ­i­ties avail­able in the T2 vir­tu­al experience. 

“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 dis­or­der,” 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. 

“As this occurs,” he con­tin­ued, “they receive audio instruc­tion about what we think caus­es post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der, and this sets the stage for the rest of the expe­ri­ence.” Users then take a sim­u­lat­ed flight home, dur­ing which they watch a video about post-trau­mat­ic stress. They land at a shop­ping mall, where each store offers an activ­i­ty that illus­trates a symp­tom and how it may affect dai­ly life. 

For exam­ple, Reger said, in the mall is a mat­tress store. 

“If you go into the store, you have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to lie down on a mat­tress and a video pops up over the avatar’s head that illus­trates a re-expe­ri­enc­ing of the trau­mat­ic event they expe­ri­enced ear­li­er dur­ing the sim­u­la­tion,” he said. “Then infor­ma­tion is pre­sent­ed on the nature of trau­ma-relat­ed night­mares and sleep disturbances.” 

The envi­ron­ment uses a range of activ­i­ties to sim­u­late symp­toms and help vis­i­tors deter­mine if they or a loved one need care, and offers infor­ma­tion about where to go for more direct assistance. 

“Sec­ond Life pro­vides the oppor­tu­ni­ty to inter­act with any­one who is in that space. Any war­rior who goes in there will be able to talk with who­ev­er is in that space,” Reger said. “We know that many of the dif­fi­cul­ties that our war­riors have result in increased social iso­la­tion and dimin­ished inter­est in get­ting out­side the home and inter­act­ing with oth­er peo­ple,” he added. “We do won­der about the poten­tial in this space to real­ly get some of these folks con­nect­ed with each oth­er in a mean­ing­ful way that might be helpful.” 

The Nation­al Cen­ter for Tele­health and Tech­nol­o­gy is a com­po­nent of the Defense Cen­ters of Excel­lence for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Health and Trau­mat­ic Brain Injury, which leads a col­lab­o­ra­tive glob­al net­work to pro­mote the resilience, recov­ery and rein­te­gra­tion of war­riors and their families. 

“We cre­at­ed an envi­ron­ment that lets peo­ple learn by doing, rather than read­ing text and watch­ing videos on two-dimen­sion­al web­sites,” Kevin Hol­loway, the psy­chol­o­gist who led T2’s vir­tu­al-world devel­op­ment, said in a state­ment. “They can learn some­thing new each time they visit.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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