Tripler uses virtual reality to help PTSD patients - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Tripler uses virtual reality to help PTSD patients

A soldier uses the virtual reality simulation A soldier uses the virtual reality simulation
The virtual reality simulation The virtual reality simulation
Melba Stetz Melba Stetz
A bio-feedback monitor A bio-feedback monitor
Heather Purcell Heather Purcell

By Teri Okita – bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Troops from Schofield's 25th Infantry Division headquarters are packing their bags and getting ready to deploy to Iraq in the next couple of weeks. But, what happens when they return from war? Tripler Army medical center is performing some groundbreaking research on post-traumatic stress disorder.

The defense department estimates that up to 20 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may have some form of PTSD. Tripler's research into the mental health disorder has taken video games to a whole other level.

A call to duty in the Middle East can be dangerous, and at Tripler, it's sometimes hard to tell where real life ends and virtual reality begins.

The medical center is one of only a few military hospitals in the country using computer games to treat PTSD. Researchers place a soldier suffering from the disorder in a pressure-filled, simulated situation - similar to what he or she experienced on the battlefield.

Chief research psychologist, Capt. Melba Stetz, says, "The patient and the therapist can see the same stressor, so I'm not relying on whatever he's imagining as a stressor and I'm not putting them, again, in a bad situation. We're looking at the same stressor and talking about it."

The patient is hooked up to a bio-feedback monitor that registers body temperature, respiration, and pulse, among other things. So, if they're starting to breathe heavy or sweat? Stetz says, "We stop the stressor, the potential stressful situation and the physiological reaction, and we discuss about it."

Reaching out for help isn't always easy for servicemembers because of the stigma of mental health - fear that their units or peers will think less of them or that it will damage their military career.

But avoidance is the worst thing PTSD patients can do. Much has been learned since the U.S. went to war in 2001. As the cases of PTSD continued to rise, doctors discovered that drawing out both the stressful memory and the emotional experience that accompanied it were optimal.

"The person has the full ability to access that memory and therefore, process it, and then, deal with it in current time," says Tripler clinical psychologist Heather Purcell, "And so, they are not disturbed by that memory in the long run."

"You're approaching a bridge. Be on the lookout for an ambush," the virtual reality program says to the patient. In talk therapy and the virtual reality program, doctors ask patients to tap into all their senses.

Purcell explains what she asks them. "So, what did you smell? What did you hear? What did you taste? And with all of that richness and fullness of the account, comes the better understanding of what happened to them."

The Veterans Administration reports almost 320 thousand vets, nationwide, received treatment for PTSD last year. For those willing to seek help, the numbers show: you're not alone.

The third marine regiment at Kaneohe - which is the most-heavily deployed combat regiment in the Corps - has its own psychiatrist and takes PTSD so seriously that it holds monthly mental health status meetings to discuss any troops who may be having difficulties and be in need of help.

Copyright 2010 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.

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