Inside the Research Institute Battling PTSD with Virtual Reality

War vet Jody Mitic visits the Institute for Creative Technologies to try out VR aimed at PTSD.

Mar 19 2014, 3:40pm

No matter how deep a civilian’s interest is when it comes to PTSD in the military, and how it can be treated or prevented—if you don’t have battle experience, you’ll always be a few steps away when it comes to relating to the men and women who return from battle with mental wounds.

For many people in Canada, which boasts a small military, meeting an active soldier or a veteran during one's average day can be rare, especially when media stereotypes tend to depict veterans as scattered or mentally ravaged. Because of that, I was pleased to meet Jody Mitic, a war hero who stepped on a landmine and lost both of his feet in Afghanistan, and who has become an outspoken advocate of soldiers' mental health.

PTSD remains a massive, widespread problem facing veterans today, and one of the most confounding, troublesome aspects of treating it is the difficulty in predicting who it will afflict. For example, despite his injuries, Jody says he has not been affected by PTSD. 

I first met Jody last year, over Twitter, after I published an article about Rob Ford and his unbelievably terrible photographer. In that piece, I compared Rob Ford to FDR; namely because FDR, who was paralyzed, was rarely photographed, which helped boost his image to the public as a strong, political figure. I suggested Rob Ford should adopt the same kind of strategy (jokingly, because what political figure in this Google Glass era could avoid being photographed?), and in the original draft, I referred to FDR as crippled instead of paralyzed.

This caused a minor Twitter flare-up between myself and an awesome wheelchair athlete named Jeff Adams, who I can now call a friendly, real-life acquaintance, who then looped in Jody, who then invited me out for a beer.

Jody is an ideal conduit to bridge the divide between the experiences of soldiers and the curiosity of civilians. As a professional, motivational speaker, with a bit of reality TV fame under his belt in Canada, Jody has made a living out of being open about his experiences.

So, after hours and hours of discussion and research into about how we at Motherboard and VICE Canada could investigate PTSD treatment, we landed on Skip Rizzo and his team at the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at University of Southern California, who are using virtual reality therapy to treat PTSD.

Because of his experience, Jody's reactions and comments on Skip’s equipment were highly valuable. It’s stunning that someone like Jody, who as a sniper witnessed all kinds of carnage, and who lost both of his feet to a landmine, can still manage to avoid the syndrome. This of course adds to the mystery of the condition, and is what largely fuels his own personal curiosity.

We also spoke to Sgt. John Warren, who the LA Times eloquently spilled ink over in a feature story that ran late last year. Sgt. Warren, an American, fought in Iraq and fell victim to a horrific roadside bomb incident that left him with PTSD. As Christopher Goffard wrote in the Times, “Warren woke to find himself in a furnace. He heard the shrill screaming of someone in terror. He realized it was himself. Fire ate at his neck and face.”

The focus of the LA Times piece, however, is Sgt. Warren’s treatment. After going through immersive VR therapy at Rizzo’s clinic, he now (while the word “cure” is a tough one to use here) feels like a much healthier man.

Video games and virtual reality have been a part of our lives for decades, but we’re clearly only scratching the surface of how they can help us become better human beings, and how they can help us heal. “The sad part of war is, of course, it sucks, but if you can pull anything good out of it, it’s that the urgency of war drives innovation," Rizzo told us. "Soldiers are the test case, and when we move on to the next thing, it’ll be using this kind of technology with civilians. Making a difference for everybody.”

While we’re hoping that the technologies we saw at ICT will soon trickle down into militaries worldwide, there are clearly implications here for the entire planet. There's surely a market for virtual therapists that can’t or won’t charge you by the hour; that kept your secrets safe from prying eyes (except for maybe the NSA, perhaps).

And likewise, for victims of trauma outside of the military, these simulations could help people cope, and move on. This is very much the beginning of a new wave of tech-therapy that’s in still its infancy, and after witnessing it firsthand, I truly believe it has a lot of power to make us better humans.