Virtual Reality Helps Military Sexual Trauma Survivors Confront Past, Find Healing

  It's a side of war few talk about.  The Veterans Administration says one in four women veterans and one in a hundred men are victims of military sexual trauma.
   Until recently, many survivors struggled to get justice and mental health assistance.
   But, at Emory's Veterans Program, therapists are using virtual reality to help veterans confront their past and heal.   
   In a small room at the Emory Brain Health Center, veterans put on a headset, entering what looks like a computer game with little action.   Psychologist and trauma expert, Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, Director of Emory's Veteran Program, says,   "It's nothing scary. So, you would look at it and not be scared. It's not Hitchcock, it's not Freddy Krueger.
       In fact, the lonely-looking scenes would probably mean little to most of us.  You see a 360 degree view of a forward operating base, a shower trailer, a tent barracks and an observation tower. There's even a bland motel room.  Yet, Rothbaum says these scenes
are tailored to match each veteran's memories of an event many have fought hard to suppress.
    She says, says "In general people with PTSD have been very avoidant. That's their way of coping.  They don't want to go there, they don't want to think about it. They will avoid all reminders."
       Dr. Rothbaum believes military sexual trauma survivors need a safe place to deal with their memories and emotions.  So, over a series of sessions, therapists use exposure therapy to allow the veterans to talk through what happened to them.
       She says, "It's kind of like facing the schoolyard bully. Rather than running around and hiding at every recess, you go up to him and say, "I'm not running from you anymore. Give me your best shot."
      As survivors tell their story, a therapist talks them through it.  They go over and over the memory until it no longer has power over them.    Dr. Rothbaum says, "I've been doing this for a long time. And even people who are scared they can't handle it, they can handle it."
    And Rothbaum hopes exposure therapy can help miltary sexual trauma survivors take back control, so the past can no longer haunt them.   She says,  "It was always be something that should never have happened to them.  But it doesn't have to be something so intensely painful today. It doesn't have to interfere with their lives today."
    The military sexual truama survivors program is part of the Warrior Care Network.  It's designed to offer mental health care -- at no cost -- to post 9/11 military veterans who qualify.  The number of exposure therapy sessions is based on each patient's situation.    Dr. Rothbaum says she's worked with sexual trauma survivors who've gone for decades without help.  She says she wants veterans to know there is hope.
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