Technology

Nurse calls for virtual reality therapy to be more widely available for veterans

How is VR therapy helping veterans battle their PTSD?

Virtual reality therapy is increasingly being used to treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but a neurological nurse believes the treatment needs to be made more widely available to veterans. 

Fully immersive virtual reality (VR) which uses HD surround sound and realistic visuals, can make the participant believe they are swimming with dolphins, watching their favourite musician in concert or doing something as simple as walking somewhere familiar. 

However, when it comes to treating PTSD, neurological nurse Rebecca Gill, CEO and founder of Virtual Reality Therapies, has seen the benefits VR therapy has to offer. 

Soldiers from 40 Commando Royal Marines trial a virtual reality system in Taunton, Somerset (Picture: BFBS).

PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by a traumatic event. Those diagnosed with the anxiety disorder often experience flashbacks, reliving the nightmare repeatedly. 

Using VR technology, patients with PTSD can learn to develop coping skills by immersing themselves in traumatic and triggering environments. Speaking with BFBS the Forces Station broadcaster Liz Mullen, Rebecca says: "It's not necessarily going back to combat situations but bringing about those feelings of anxiety and stress and panic and help them work through those in a totally safe environment." 

There are many forms of treatment available to those diagnosed with PTSD. These include, among others, virtual reality therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), peer to peer support and wild swimming. 

Using Virtual Reality to Train Forces Medics
A woman tries on a virtual reality headset (Picture: BFBS).

However, not everyone diagnosed with PTSD can be treated the same way. Some people benefit from a combination of treatments. 

Rebecca is frustrated that virtual reality therapy is "hidden away in research facilities and hospitals". She says that in most cases you must be in "dire situations to be able to access it". She is passionate that virtual reality therapy is made widely available for veterans so they can take control of their own treatment. 

Rebecca first discovered the benefits of VR therapy when she learned how it has helped veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan plus some of the New York firefighters who were rescuing people after the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. 

VR therapy gives patients the opportunity to reconnect with their negative memories which can help the healing process. 

First responders search for survivors at Ground Zero New York City Ground Zero Sept 14 2001 Picture Department of Defense US Air National Guard Tech Sgt Mark C Olsen
First responders search for survivors at Ground Zero in New York City on 14 September 2001 (Picture: Department of Defense / US Air National Guard Tech Sgt Mark C Olsen).

Rebecca said the veterans especially benefitting from VR therapy are those who have treatment-resistant PTSD, saying: "They've not responded to the normal counselling and those sorts of things. 

"Virtual reality therapy has been fantastic and it's really helped veterans learn to live with their symptoms and also help develop the coping skills to better survive and get through day to day life." 

The veterans Rebecca has helped are breathing more easily, feel more calm and find themselves smiling more. Virtual reality uses all of your senses which helps to strengthen different neurons in the brain and those pathways. She said: 

"A lot of them have got chronic pain as well and they report that they're feeling less pain and they're better able to cope with life – everything from their mental health to their physical health that we're finding benefits." 

The Ministry Of Defence is also piloting schemes which use VR to train troops and help military leaders prepare for future threats. 

For more information on the help available for serving personnel, veterans and their families visit www.forces.net/audiencesupport

Cover image: A soldier demonstrates a virtual reality headset in 2015 (Picture: Crown Copyright).