VR therapy takes veterans back to ‘virtual Vietnam’ to heal decades-old trauma: ‘A path to peace’

A landmark virtual reality app geared toward helping older veterans looking for closure and dealing with trauma is taking exposure therapy to new places – to the markets of Hanoi or to the landscapes of Vietnam. 

The new application, pioneered by immersive technology company Mynd Immersive in partnership with VA Immersive, part of VA’s Office of Healthcare Innovation and Learning, focuses specifically on Vietnam War veterans, digitally transporting them back to places they may have visited during the war, so they can work through trauma and discover a “path to peace.”

“We’re tapping into the power of VR to really, really provide an emotional uplift to these aging veterans,” Chris Brickler, co-founder and CEO of Mynd Immersive, told Fox News Digital.

Brickler helped start the company approximately seven years ago, intent on improving the lives of the elderly, with digital therapeutics eventually taking shape by strengthening the bond between patients and caregivers. “A Path to Peace” is one of the ways it achieves its purpose.

“‘A Path to Peace’ is really, targeted to those veterans that are 75 and older. About 40% of our population of older men above 75 are veterans. So, it’s an absolute massive percentage of older veterans that have survived and have been living a lot of times with a lot of emotional scars,” he said.

“Some veterans go back to Vietnam or have over the years, and that’s a very emotional trip for a lot of folks, but a lot of folks don’t have the mobility to go back now, but would love to go back, and probably have some closure or some emotional feelings around those aspects of the content,” he continued.

The project uses crisp, clear high-resolution spherical video to immerse patients in a number of scenarios, giving off the impression they are in a faraway place without having to make the travel. The device used for the therapy almost resembles a large pair of sunglasses.

“When you’re at a memorial or at a beautiful market in Hanoi, it’s really crisp and clear. It’s three-dimensional, and you feel like you’re right there, so it gives a lot of these veterans that would want to go back and pay homage the opportunity to do that,” Brickler said.

Content being built into the app would enable veterans to meditate on a beach in Vietnam or witness other areas of the country that might bring about peace. Brickler said the goal isn’t to necessarily bring veterans back to the battlefield, but instead show them that they contributed to something historical and the war was not all for naught.

Dr. Skip Rizzo, director of the medical virtual reality group at the University of Southern California, is also advising the project. He said he has worked in the virtual reality field since the 1990s, during the early days when people were especially skeptical of the technology. 

“VR sometimes has been seen as some kind of Star Trek science fiction holodeck kind of thing, but functionally, it’s a technology that allows us to put people in simulations, in a controlled fashion that helps them to confront their fears or experience positive things, or get distracted from pain or engage them in activities clinically that they might not ordinarily do with traditional therapy,” he said. 

“So there’s there’s a sound rationale for applying it [in therapy].”

Rizzo, in 2004, helped build out a system geared toward veterans of more recent conflicts, namely Iraq and Afghanistan, rooting it in a “prolonged exposure” approach that immerses people in virtual experiences to face their trauma in a manageable way. 

“We do it in a way that’s, I think, more systematic and controllable by putting people in simulations that never mimic an exact replica, but mimic the types of experiences they may have had, but at a pace they can handle,” he explained. 

“So maybe they got blown up in a Humvee. We don’t put them in the Humvee and blow it up at first. We start off, maybe they’re walking around by some vehicles and talking about their experience and talking about what they thought back then, as if they’re going through it. Then we might put them in a Humvee and have them sit in it for a while. Then we may have them drive on a road in, provocative settings. So, by this gradual exposure and reprocessing of the emotional memory, we see reductions [in PTSD symptoms].”

The technology is said to help veterans develop mindfulness practices commonly used in therapy, giving the experience a surreal quality without the distractions of the surrounding world. It is now deployed in nearly 100 long-term veteran care facilities across the U.S., according to a press release from Feb. 6.

Mynd’s VR technology can also help people beyond veterans, including those with ADHD, people suffering from chronic pain, the elderly experiencing loneliness or stroke victims who need more engaging approaches to rehabilitation.

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