Captain Heather Bautista (standing) and Lieutenant Commander William Satterfield, checks the operation of a virtual reality software for returning veterans with combat post traumatic stress disorder at the David Grant USAF Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., April 17. Capt. Bautista, U.S. Air Force and LCDR. Satterfield, U.S. Public Health Service are assigned to the center's mental health clinic. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)
4/23/2009 - TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- Mental health therapists and social workers at the David Grant USAF Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., are currently using a virtual reality program to treat servicemembers who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, after returning from combat operations.
"PTSD is an anxiety disorder that occurs sometimes after a person has experienced a traumatic event," said Capt. Heather Bautista, a social worker in the Mental Health Clinic.
"Not everybody who experiences trauma is going to develop PTSD but if this traumatic event is something that you witnessed either yourself or vicariously and you thought that your life was in danger or others were in danger you can develop this. We are helping the patient deal with avoidance. Avoidance is the key to PTSD."
To help deal with the patient's avoidance to their situation medical professionals use the virtual reality software, Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy Application for Post Traumatic Stress. The program includes a motion-inducing platform, headphones, a cued-smells generator, a mock M-16 with directional controls/game controller and a virtual reality visor to help veterans relive their situation. The software has been introduced to eight bases in the Air Force.
The system lets warriors re-experience their event under the supervision of a mental health expert and in the safety of a controlled setting in a hospital.
On average, patients are seen once a week by their therapists and use the virtual reality system about 10-12 times for 60 minutes each time at the medical center.
However, before any patient is placed in the system, the patient would have had several visits with the therapist, explaining the situation step-by-step. The therapist then tailors the system to the individual's traumatic experience. The patient and therapist work through the scenario to help cope with the event.
"This is about as close to a Humvee experience I can give you without putting you into an actual Humvee," Captain Bautista said. This helps you process it so that you realize it's an event that happened but I survived it and I can process it and move on."
By talking about their experience, people build details into the simulation. Little by little, they gain a better understanding of the traumatic experience. The technology complements the evidence-based treatment known as 'Prolonged Exposure Therapy' and other research proven approache. All are used here to help deployers live a normal life.
"The ultimate goal is to get the servicemember well and back to deploying again," said Captain Bautista.
This system also has civilian uses and another version is being developed for medical personnel who experience trauma from treating people.
"In this context we think of war, but it can be any trauma, natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina we saw a huge influx of PTSD, car accident, sexual assault, anything that you perceive your life is in danger," said Captain Bautista.