CBC News has learned that the Canadian military has decided to use "virtual reality therapy" in a pilot project to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
The new therapy method puts soldiers in a computer-animated situation that recreates the specific incident that left the soldiers traumatized. A therapist then helps the soldiers to work through their memories.
It is estimated that 17 per cent of Canadian soldiers who did dangerous patrols outside of their base in Afghanistan, and who are now home, are reporting symptoms of PTSD.
The Canadian Forces says the therapy seems to appeal to a younger generation of soldiers comfortable with video games.
The VR therapy was pioneered by Dr. Skip Rizzo at the University of Southern California. He says that "the research shows, pretty consistently over the years, that by having the person gradually imagine or be exposed in VR to events in the traumatic memories, that they’re able to process emotional memories."
Last year, the Canadian Forces told CBC's Diana Swain it was not convinced that there was enough research to prove the therapy could work. Now, in an email to CBC News, it says it is launching a pilot project paying "close attention to research in this area."
Different name, different wars
The psychological effects of war on soldiers been given a variety of names:
- Tremblers (Sparta).
- Soldier's heart (U.S. Civil War).
- Shell shock, combat fatigue (WW I and WW II).
- Vietnam syndrome (Vietnam War).
- PTSD (Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan).
The Canadian Forces points out that VR therapy is only one element of exposure therapy treatments for PTSD. Other aspects include re-experiencing the trauma through journaling, describing verbally or narrating, and producing art and audiotapes.
Col. Rakesh Jetly, a Canadian Forces psychiatrist, says VR is a "new and promising tool that provides a novel alternative to exposure therapy."
The new therapy is being used in more than 50 U.S. military hospitals.
U.S. soldier Jason Skinner has credited the video game therapy with saving him from a breakdown after serving in Iraq.
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