WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Jan. 24, 2011) -- The Department of Defense launched a computer-based virtual world last week where Soldiers can anonymously learn about the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and where to get help.
Creators of the Virtual PTSD Experience at the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, or T2, hope the program will cut down on stigma associated with the "signature wounds" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Inside the computer-based program, servicemembers can create an avatar, a cartoon-version of themselves, to navigate through realistic scenarios in Second Life, a virtual-reality video game.
"I have seen too many warriors who come home from a deployment and silently suffer for years before they get help," said Greg Reger, a clinical psychologist and acting chief of T2's Innovative Technology Applications Division.
Once logged onto the Virtual PTSD Experience, servicemembers will encounter a visitor's center on "Psychological Health Island," which will lead them through the three sections of the program: causes, symptoms, and next steps. Throughout the virtual experience, users can click on brochure links that will take them to informational websites, connect them with mental-health facilities to schedule an appointment or lead them through relaxation exercises.
During the "causes" section of the program, participants are led through a role-playing scenario, which resembles a crowded marketplace similar to what Soldiers may have witnessed while deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. During the scenario, a Humvee explodes and users monitor their reaction and stress level.
Next, users are sent on a virtual flight home where they encounter everyday activities like visiting a shopping mall and facing large crowds.
"Someone who's been in a crowded market setting where their life was put at risk, naturally might not like being in very crowded situations such as a shopping mall," Reger said of the program's section.
Those using the program can navigate their avatar virtually through situations that they actually may not be comfortable with in real life, Reger explained.
"An individual can go into this space and go through a series of interactive simulations and experiences that really help them learn about the causes of PTSD, the symptoms, and how they can get help," he said.
Throughout the program, a "relax button," is available when any scenario becomes too overwhelming. The user will be immediately transported to a relaxation room to listen to relaxing music or take part in relaxing breathing techniques.
Program creators hope that in the future the Virtual PTSD Experience can facilitate actual virtual patient appointments, where users can meet with mental health professionals using their avatars.
"Here, you are an avatar, and no one knows who you are in real life unless you tell them," the program's introduction video explains. "You can feel free to explore everything on this island without worrying that others might see you or think less of you. Of course, getting information and help does not make you less of a Soldier, Airman, Sailor or Marine."
Program designers are hoping this new approach to mental health help will hit home to those ashamed to seek help using traditional venues.
"We created an environment that lets people learn by doing, rather than reading text and watching videos on two-dimensional websites," said Kevin Holloway, the psychologist who led T2's virtual world development. "They can learn something new each time they visit."
The welcome video hopes that providing a place like Psychological Health Island in Second Life will help users regain their first life too.
"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," Reger said. "That's what we're here to do, to find new solutions."