New Technology to Aid Veterans Mental Health

Of the 1.7 million veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is estimated that 20 percent live with post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. These conditions can have a significant impact on returning vets’ relationships, and their school or work performance. Unfortunately, according to a survey from the RAND Corporation, only 30 percent of these veterans with PTSD or depression seek help from the VA health system. [1]

As it does for anyone, the stigma surrounding mental health issues presents an obstacle for many veterans who might otherwise reach out for support. In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), service members frequently cite fear of personal embarrassment, disappointing comrades, losing the opportunity for career advancement, and dishonorable discharge as motivations to hide symptoms of mental illness from family, friends and colleagues. [2]

However, new technology and alternative treatment modalities are providing new opportunities to reach veterans, especially the large number of younger veterans returning from recent conflicts.[3]

One innovative new approach being studied is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in the online world of Second Life. In this virtual world, veterans can learn and practice meditation and stress relief techniques under the guidance of a trained research team. Because they use any avatar of their choosing to represent themselves in the virtual world, and can even disguise their voice, they can anonymously receive support and experiment with these techniques, even if the stigma of mental health issues would otherwise prevent them from doing so.[4]

Dr. Valerie Rice, head of the research project and chief of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate Army Medical Department Field Element in San Antonio states that: “The virtual world reduces the anxiety that comes from going into a behavioral health center by offering anonymity. There is still a stigma we have to confront that asking for help is a sign of weakness.”

If a veteran doesn’t find the virtual world appealing, help can also be as close as a smart phone. The National Center for PTSD has released an app called “PTSD Coach” that has already been downloaded by more than 100,000 people. The free app helps vets, or anyone with PTSD, to track symptoms, manage stress, and find additional help when you need it.

Of course, none of these tools is a substitute for getting more comprehensive support or treatment from a trained professional when needed, but it can be an entry point for those who might not otherwise reach out, and can be one important first step on their journey to recovery.

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