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Virtual Reality May Make PTSD Treatment More Effective

June 27, 2019 5 minute Read
Chris Meek, 2018 Stand-To Veteran Leadership Scholar and Co-founder of SoldierStrong
New research and new technologies open the possibility of more effective, more affordable treatments for PTSD that can make a meaningful and lasting impact in the lives of veterans.

This article originally appeared in The Gazette.

Warfighters, veterans, and the cultures that send them to fight have recognized what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the Spartans were a superpower. Quite a bit more recently, the United States Senate designated June 27th as National PTSD Awareness Day.

That designation, and greater awareness of PTSD throughout our society, is not only appropriate, but truly important. Among other reasons, here’s perhaps the biggest: a major RAND Corporation study concluded that unremediated PTSD is the single most common underlying factor for veterans who consider or attempt suicide.

America has been fighting the veteran suicide scourge for a long time now. There have been many valiant efforts to address it over a period now spanning several decades. Yet the intransigence of this problem remains.

Consider, for example, a jaw-dropping reality for our Vietnam-era veterans. More veterans of this era were lost to suicide than there are names on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. For this generation, it turns out being a veteran was more lethal than combat itself. What’s more, the generation of post-9/11 veterans is on track to reach the same grim milestone in the years ahead if we don’t act. An average of 20 American veterans are lost to suicide each and every day.

This PTSD Awareness Day there is a glimmer of hope. New research and new technologies open the possibility of more effective, more affordable treatments for PTSD that can make a meaningful and lasting impact in the lives of veterans. And effective treatment of this underlying cause of so many suicide attempts can help dramatically reduce the epidemic of suicides facing America’s veterans.

SoldierStrong, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides hyper-advanced medical devices and treatments to America’s wounded veterans, is working with four major universities and multiple federal agencies to deliver some of these new PTSD treatments to those who most need them.

The treatment, known as the ‘StrongMind VR Protocol’, uses virtual reality technology in a clinical setting to address PTSD. The StrongMind Alliance is a group of leading technologists, clinicians, and institutions that have come together to make this treatment possible.

The StrongMind VR Protocol is powered by software developed by Dr. Skip Rizzo and the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Their software, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense, offers 14 different ‘worlds’ that recreate a broad range of combat scenarios. These scenarios, and a range of environmental and sensory factors, can be rapidly customized by doctors and clinicians working with individual veterans dealing with PTSD.

The virtual-reality hardware development is driven by Iowa State University, and the world-class team at ISU’s “VRAC” (Virtual Reality Applications Center). The VRAC has been at the leading edge of virtual reality technology far longer than most institutions, and has been a recognized leader in the field for over a decade.

Ensuring the hardware and software components can be used to maximum clinical effect is an entirely different discipline than creating either the hardware or the software. The very best in the world is the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. Their clinical research deals not just with treating PTSD, but also with helping maximize the performance of healthy brains in our veterans and active service personnel.

Dealing with long-term effects and understanding the wide variety of disparate data sets available on veterans and veteran health is yet another challenge that must be addressed if we are to beat PTSD and reduce the incidence of veteran suicide. The Aging Studies Institute at Syracuse University is partnering with StrongMind to provide just that kind of expertise and insight.

The yield of these efforts supporting the StrongMind Alliance is no longer science fiction, but has become science fact. Working in concert with the VA’s Innovation Network (or ‘i-Net’), the first StrongMind VR Protocol packages will be delivered to VA clinical sites this summer.

PTSD has been with us since the time of the Spartans. It plagues us still. It’s high time we relegate it to the history books.

This PTSD Awareness Day, there is real hope that American ingenuity and innovation might just do exactly that.