Soldiers and Marines are iron tough in battle — though the biggest enemy they face sometimes doesn't show up until they get home. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression afflicts nearly 20 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. One-half don't seek treatment. But a new treatment, Virtual Iraq, allows troops to delve into their trauma without landing on the couch.
With many soldiers avoiding treatment out of fear of stigma, a customized version of the best-selling videogame Full Spectrum Warrior has become a promising option. Since 2005, the Department of Defense has poured funding into it and two other virtual-reality programs targeting PTSD. And psychologists like JoAnn Difede — who treated Sept. 11 victims with a similar program called Virtual WTC — are hopeful. She said:
You don't have to do any work. You don't have to engage in any mental effort. We'll do it for you and then, gradually, we'll let you get involved in the experience in sensory detail.
Slow and steady wins the race with this therapy. A patient's readiness to move on must be carefully assessed. Looking at an Iraqi street scene may begin and end the first session, but slowly sounds and smells and actions are added. It can take months.
How is this even helpful? To see how,
It's a form of prolonged-exposure, or immersion, therapy. The idea is to expose a patient to the source of trauma over and over until the event or situation no longer triggers fear. If you remember psychology and this sounds a lot like "habituation," it's because it is. (Does Pavlov ring a bell? Heh! Bell.)
While results are still pending on the efficacy of Virtual Iraq so far it's promising. After a few weeks of exposure, one marine was able to sleep without medication, felt more relaxed, and could joke around. He said:
Before I felt like there were two people in me. The marine who was numb, who was a tough guy, and the civilian in me, the real me, the guy who isn't serious all the time, the guy who can take a joke. By the end of therapy, I felt more like one person.
Should we be exploring more cutting-edge methods of treating the whole soldier? Could forcing them to relive the sights, sounds, and smells of battle, actually help soldiers cope?