By COLIN FORWARD and KELLI MURRAY, MedSpeaks
"I can't blow up Memory Mall," jokes Dr. Deborah Beidel, "President Hitt told me I couldn't."
Dr. Beidel is a Pegasus Professor of Psychology at UCF and director of UCF RESTORES, a clinical research and treatment center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
RESTORES uses virtual reality (VR) headsets to deliver an experience that makes "serious games" seem like an understatement. They transport their clients back to Iraq and Afghanistan where their original trauma occurred. The virtual environment is enhanced with haptic feedback, and scents that they recall from the traumatic experience.
"It can be pretty overwhelming," says Beidel. "As tough as it is to get through, they're willing to do it to have a good outcome on the other side."
Serious games has been an important component of the research conducted at UCF for years. Researchers at the Institute for Simulation and Training use virtual worlds to create immersive training programs, and to evaluate how people react to situations that are hard to study in the real world (e.g. wartime environments). And now Beidel's team is using virtual reality to push the limits of behavioral health.
RESTORES is the only program in the country that is treating combat military personnel with PTSD in 3 weeks, whereas traditional programs are 17 weeks long. Despite the compressed timeframe, Beidel says their clients report that the treatment is effective for at least 6 months after the program, and some clients are even reporting that it is effective 2-3 years from the time of treatment.
The program was originally funded by research grants from the U.S. Army to study the effectiveness of combat-related PTSD treatments. Now that the effectiveness of the program has been scientifically validated, RESTORES is expanding the populations they treat, and working toward training other mental health providers to deliver the program. RESTORES has already treated civilian patients, including a first responder to the Pulse nightclub shooting.
"What we have done is take therapies that already exist, and packaged them in a way that seems to be producing a very good result. So we do hope...that we can be the place or have the therapy that other people can use."