Harnessing the power of VR: a revolution in PTSD treatment for veterans

5th June 2023
Paige West

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that can develop after an individual experiences or witnesses a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual trauma. According to Hill & Ponton, disability attorneys, PTSD is one of the most reported disabilities among military veterans. Having witnessed unimaginable horrors of war, they often return home with invisible wounds like this disorder that profoundly affect their day-to-day lives.

Traditional approaches to treating PTSD in veterans often involve combinations of psychotherapy (talk therapy) and medications. One of the most common therapy types that this community utilises is exposure therapy, where they are gradually and repeatedly exposed to thoughts, feelings and situations that bring up memories of the traumatic experience they endured, with the goal of finding coping strategies.

As effective as these treatments can sometimes be, sometimes they also fall short. No veteran is the same as another, so not all respond well to traditional therapies, and recreating triggering scenarios like the ones they endured can be challenging. Given these limitations, over the last few decades, researchers have been trying to be a little more creative and innovative in finding strategies to supplement more traditional approaches.

This is where the world of virtual reality comes in!

Virtual reality exposure therapy: a world of immersive healing

Virtual reality, otherwise called ‘VR’ technology, is often recognised for its applications in the gaming industry and for training purposes. However, in more recent years, it has begun to make headway in the realm of mental health treatments, introducing an exciting new possibility for treating PTSD in veterans through a technique known as Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET).

VRET uses immersive VR technology to recreate traumatic events in a simulated environment. This allows veterans the ability to be able to confront and process their trauma in a safe space, under the watchful eye of mental health and medical professionals.

The immersive simulations give vets the opportunity to confront these scenarios front-and-center, but with the ability to have it modulated in its intensity, to better meet a veteran's therapeutic needs.

Virtual reality: making PTSD treatment more accessible and affordable

As effective and helpful as virtual reality seems to be in many PTSD cases, one of the challenges it presents even now, has been access. Unfortunately, not all veterans can easily obtain specialised PTSD treatment due to things like geographical constraints and financial restraints. However, VR technology is attempting to bridge this gap, by providing a lower-cost and more easily accessible opportunity.

With the increasingly widespread adoption of VR, it’s also led to it becoming more affordable and accessible than ever before. Standalone VR headsets, such as the Oculus Quest, for example, have significantly dropped in price, making it possible for a wide range of people to own the devices and have them in their homes. This can be a game-changer for mental health care treatment, especially for veterans, because they can get to it no matter where they live.

Moreover, VR-based treatments for PTSD can also be done remotely, from the comfort of a veteran's own home. This eliminates the old-school long commutes to therapists’ office or arranging for care in rural, remote areas.

As VR tech continues to become more widespread and improves, its role in democratising access to effective mental health treatment for veterans and the public in general cannot be overstated. Making treatments more affordable and accessible means it can play a pivotal role in ensuring everyone, especially our veterans, get the mental health support they rightfully deserve.

The transformative impact of virtual reality on PTSD treatment

Integrating technology like virtual reality into PTSD treatment for veterans can make therapy more engaging, controlled, and effective. Studies have shown that VR-based treatment can increase a patient's engagement over ten-times as much as traditional methods. The immersive nature of VR helps keep veterans motivated and on their feet throughout the course of their treatment.

Additionally, as mentioned above, VR also provides a useful advantage for therapists, being able to have greater control over therapeutic settings. They can alter a virtual environment to fit the specific needs of their veteran clients, and this ability can lead to improved treatment outcomes.

Most importantly however, VR has been clinically shown to reduce PTSD symptoms severity among the veteran population, which is an exciting and hopeful thing for future treatment. By controlling their trauma in a virtual setting, veterans can more effectively learn to manage their symptoms, so it can translate into real-life scenarios.

Case studies: VR making a real difference

There have been several projects over the years that have harnessed the power of virtual reality to help veterans with PTSD, with promising results.

The Walk Again Project utilised VR technology to provide exposure therapy to veterans. The initiative led to a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms, and many of the veterans reported an improved quality of life.

StrongMind VR Solution, developed by a company called Virtually Better, is another example of VR tech being put to good use for veterans. Again, it was utilised to create different exposure environments – anything from Middle Eastern markets to Afghan mountains. The veterans who used the StrongMind technology reported significant improvements with managing their PTSD symptoms overall.

The future of PTSD treatment: VR and beyond

VR is just beginning to scratch the surface with its potential in treating PTSD in the general population, as well as veterans. As the technology evolves, so will the ways we will be able to use it for mental health. There may be even more innovative applications of VR in the near future, like combining it with AI technology like ChatGPT to create very personalised and tailored therapy programmes.

The integration of virtual reality into PTSD treatment symbolises a new era of hope for our heroes. As we continue to understand and explore the vast potential of VR technology, we will have the opportunity to transform how we support our veteran’s health and wellbeing, and pave the way for a future where no veteran has to go to battle alone.

Read more about how VR is improving mental health here.

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