How Virtual Reality Can Help Vets With PTSD

Soyeon Kim
Military VA Loan contributor

Virtual reality might be a way to not only help diagnose and treat PTSD for our Veterans

When troops return home from a tour, each one finds their own way to get back into their daily lives and routine. Every one must complete a written survey designed to evaluate service members’ health. The Post-Deployment Heath Assessment evaluates psychiatric health and filters out symptoms of depression and PTSD.

Though designed to give the military insight into its personnel, the survey can actually distort it. The PDHA isn’t anonymous, where the results go on service members’ records. Anonymous surveys could help veterans open up, but also establish good rapport. Veterans need somebody who can carry their secrets confidentially and without judgement.

The findings, which appear in the latest issue of the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI, suggest that virtual interviewers could prove to be even better than human therapists at helping soldiers open up about their mental health. The study finds that soldiers are more likely to share symptoms of PTSD to a virtual interviewer.

“People are very open to feeling connected to things that aren’t people,” says Gale Lucas, a psychologist at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Meet Ellie, a virtual interviewer used to test whether veterans are more comfortable with her than a survey.

To see if Ellie could help soldiers reveal their PTSD symptoms, Lucas and her team brought in soldiers recently returned from Afghanistan. Ellie began each interview with rapport-building questions and ended with positive, mood-boosting ones. But this time, Ellie’s clinical questions were geared toward symptoms of PTSD, specifically.

In the end, veterans reported significantly more PTSD symptoms in their interviews with Ellie than they did on their PDHA surveys. But the service members also divulged more to Ellie than they did on an anonymized version of the PDHA. That suggests a system like Ellie could provide a real service to members of the military.

“Getting people to admit they have symptoms is an important step in helping them realize they’re at risk—and getting them treatment,” Lucas says. “With a virtual interviewer, you don’t have to ruin your career to begin seeking help.”

“Again and again, I’m seeing the power of the virtual agents to tease out information that traditional methods just don’t, and that power seems to stem from the fact that it’s just a computer,” she says. That’s the thing about AI therapists like Ellie: They can help you, but they can’t judge you.