Virtual Reality Therapy Could Benefit Victims of Haiti Earthquake

Cyberpsychology is the study of the human mind and behavior in the context of human-technology interaction. Computer-mediated forms of counseling include e-mails or chats online with a therapist; however cyberpsychology is not limited to the use of internet technology as it also includes cyborgs, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. This type of therapy can be used to treat various types of mental illness including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

PTSD is common in soldiers returning from combat duty, victims of sexual or physical assault and survivors of imprisonment or hostage situations. It is also common among individual that have experienced acts of terrorism, accidents or natural disasters and those diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Conventional approaches to treat PTSD include antidepressant medication and psychotherapy; however recovery rates are far from acceptable.

“Exposure therapy has been recognized as a highly promising method for treating patients with PTSD. Rather than relying on patients’ visualization skills to ‘relive’ the traumatic experience, technological strategies such as virtual meditation(VR) provide a controlled environment in which patients can experience a situation or scenario while learning to cope with their emotional responses.”

When natural disasters occur relief efforts typically focus on immediate needs, such food, clothing, shelter, first aid, emotional support and family reunification. Treatment of ongoing mental health should play a vital role in the response. The implementation of this type of tool could have major benefits for mass casualty survivors.

In Haiti, for instance, individuals are experiencing major losses that will affect them for years to come. The loss of loved ones, displacement, medical injuries and material loss are all psychologically devastating. In addition, the victims of this tragedy are likely to be disturbed by memories of the trauma and experience flashbacks of mass graves and friends, neighbours, and even family members burned or trapped under collapsed buildings. Furthermore, the destroyed buildings and homes, and the absence of family members will continue to serve as traumatic reminders.

“‘Empty situations’ posed by the sense of an absence of personal location, deprives the victim of a safe ‘holding environment’ so necessary for the recovery process. These secondary adversities caused by displacement function as a barrier to the effort required in ‘processing’ the trauma of personal loss.” Rebuilding the lost structure in their lives is necessary for recovery, however efforts cannot end there. Extended treatment is essential to full or near full recovery, therefore, funding should be applied to ongoing mental health treatment. Virtual reality treatment in safe clinical settings could be part of that effort.

Virtual reality treatment is not a quick fix. It consists of many sessions of gradual exposure and it is most often combined with cognitive behavioral therapy and anxiety management in order to cope with the recreation of the traumatic events. It is important to note that the virtual recreation consists only of certain aspects of the event and not the exact recreation of the event itself.

Evidently, time, money and effort of this type of approach far exceeds the efforts of distributing supplies, however success rates are far more important than quick and easy methods. Moreover, this type of therapy should really be considered for relief personnel as their mental health is also at risk from their experiences. Recovering from the effects of a natural disaster is a lengthy process and the treatment for its effects on mental health is an even lengthier one.