New online source aids PTSD search for veterans

By Mr. Lorin Smith (I Corps)January 20, 2011

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has called for mental health services to be offered to servicemembers in the comfort of their own homes. As the first endeavor into making Mullen's desire a reality, the Department of Defense National Center for Telehealth and Technology has launched an online virtual educational space accessible anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day for combat veterans to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder.

The T2 Virtual PTSD Experience was built on the Second Life virtual world platform. Second Life provides T2 a limitless space on the Internet where DOD servicemembers can learn more about PTSD causes, symptoms and resources for information and care, according to Dr. Kevin Holloway, the psychologist who led T2's virtual world development. "This is unlike any other website out there; the information that is presented in an interactive, immersive format where the user becomes part of the learning world," Holloway said.

Using virtual reality for psychological health care is a new venture for the DOD. Today's young service- and family members are more likely than previous generations to use an online virtual world to obtain information about behavioral health than the traditional face-to-face interactions, a driving force for T2's devoting time and resources to developing the project.

"We believe this is the first time DOD has used interactive simulations with the Web to help our military community with PTSD in the privacy of their homes," said Dr. Greg Reger, acting chief of T2's Innovative Technology Applications division, which creates virtual world experiences and studies virtual reality therapy for PTSD patients.

The Second Life virtual world uses avatars, or 3-D representations of individuals, to interact within the space. The avatars can walk, fly, and move their bodies in many of the same ways people do. Guests can choose any of them, while providing complete anonymity for visitors to ask sensitive questions about PTSD and protecting against the stigma servicemembers associate with seeing behavioral health providers.

"The avatars are not traced back to (the servicemember's) original identity, and they don't have to worry that it will interfere with their job, which helps reduced the perceived stigma," Holloway said. "We created an environment that lets people learn by doing, rather than reading text and watching videos on two-dimensional websites."

Once visitors have been accepted to use T2's Second Life virtual space, aptly named Psychological Health Island, they start at the Visitor Center, where they learn about the space and receive information about post-traumatic stress. T2 has developed several locations on the island, including the "downrange" experience, which has a simulation about the causes of PTSD, the "back home" experience, which provides information about realistic situations that can cause PTSD symptoms to show up in daily life and the "next steps" area, which has self-help information - ways to get in touch with live behavioral health providers and to access other Web resources.

"I think one of the reasons people will be interested in exploring this space is that people will be able to learn something new every time they come," Holloway said. "The environment changes based on what they do and the choices available to them. They'll keep coming back to learn as much as they can."

Visitors enter the Virtual PTSD Experience space through the Second Life website, which can be accessed for free. Detailed information for entering T2's Virtual PTSD Experience is at Second Life may not be accessible from computers on a military network. Other T2 virtual worlds projects include the development of additional educational resources on psychological health topics, exploring provider training and consultation assets, and exploring the feasibility of offering other evidence-based psychological health treatments via a virtual world.

The National Center for Telehealth and Technology, located at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, serves as the primary DOD office for cutting-edge approaches in technology with psychology. It is a component center of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Lorin T. Smith: