Virtual reality to help more military and other public safety workers cope with PTSD is central to the work of a new group launched in Edmonton.
Heroes in Mind, Advocacy & Research Consortium (HiMARC) is made up of those who want “to serve the men and women in uniform who have served us and continue to serve us daily,” Bob Haennel, dean of the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, said in a Wednesday news release.
HiMARC’s Motion-Assisted, Multi-Modal Memory Desensitization and Reconsolidation (3MDR) research study — the largest of its kind in Canada with 40 Armed Forces participants — allows PTSD patients to use the Computer-Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN) system at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.
“It was incredible. I don’t know how else to describe it. My senses were heightened. I was even sensitive to the clanging sound of the carabiner on my harness,” said Capt. Anna Harpe, a social worker at CFB Edmonton, after experiencing the 3MDR system.
Patients who step into the CAREN unit walk on a treadmill toward a stimulus, sounds and images that may remind them of events that trigger traumatic memories. A therapist is with them through the process, guiding the patient confronting the memories.
While Harpe does not have PTSD, she said testing the 3MDR brought back vivid recollections of a mission in Afghanistan when she was in the infantry.
“I have worked with some clients who have been diagnosed with PTSD, and I have to say, the 3MDR is mind-blowing. My whole body was activated. You just cannot get the same thing through talk therapy in an office,” she said.
Study participants are receiving the therapy once a week for six weeks.
“By walking towards the fear, there is a shift in the brain,” said Suzette Brémault-Phillips, director of HiMARC in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and co-principal investigator for the study in Canada.
The 3MDR system — developed by Col. Eric Vermetten, head of research at the Military Mental Health unit of the Dutch ministry of defence in the Netherlands — has been effective in the Netherlands where it’s been used to treat the rise in PTSD cases there after its mission to Afghanistan.
Vermetten traveled to Edmonton to train Brémault-Phillips and her team to use the system.
HiMARC’s founding members also include the Royal Canadian Legion Alberta-NWT Command, NAIT, the Department of National Defence, Veteran Affairs Canada and Covenant Health.
“HiMARC is creating hope and I am so grateful for this group. I really believe this is just the beginning,” added Harpe.