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Colorado researchers develop virtual reality training to help first responders cope with mental illness

AURORA, Colo. -- Imagine you are in an elevator.

There is typical, boring elevator music playing as it climbs up to the top floor of a skyscraper.

When the door opens, you are outside, 400 feet up and the only place to go is a thin wooden plank hanging over the edge. What do you do?

“Only about half of the people who do this actually get out of the elevator,” said Matt Vogle, executive director at the National Mental Health Innovation Center at  the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

The exercise is part of a virtual reality simulation designed to induce stress.

“For most people, fight or flight kicks in and even though people know they’re on the floor, their brain says no way, you’re not safe so I’m not going to let you go out there,” he said.

NMHIC is developing a virtual reality training program for first responders to prevent the stresses of the job.

“Police, fire, dispatch and EMS, they have probably among the highest stress of any occupation out there,” Vogle said.

“They haven’t done a great job of mental health training and how do you prepare people for the psychological stress that they’re going to experience?”

A recent study from NMHIC and its subgroup Responder Strong found there is a serious lack of mental health resources for first responders in Colorado.

Additionally, a large number of them are suffering from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide because of the trauma they experience daily while on duty.

“With virtual reality you can do what’s called stress inoculation, so you expose people to the bad thing ahead of time so when they see it for real when they’re out in the field their brain actually has something to draw from,” Vogle said.

They are already working on developing simulations to mimic realistic 911 calls, including car accidents, traumatic fires and children drowning.

They also are developing bio-sensors that will detect the trainee’s vital signs like temperature and heart rate.

“What we want to do is create a scenario that is realistic but as the responders go into it. ... They can’t make out what’s going on, it’s loud, it’s dimly lit,” Responder Strong program manager Rhonda Kelly said.

“As they start to incorporate stress management skills the scene will be more brightly lit, the noise will tone down.”

The goal is to give the trainee positive reinforcement for bringing their heart rate down.

NMHIC said the repeated stress management training will help the responder build a muscle memory to stay calm in stressful situations.

“For the new responder, I think it would be great to get used to that sort of thing so they’re not panicking when they get on their first scene,” Lt. Chantel Benish from Sable Altura Fire Rescue said.

She experienced virtual reality for the first time at the lab on Tuesday afternoon.

“I was really skeptical coming into it,” she said.

However, she said she quickly learned how “real” virtual reality can feel.

“I had nowhere to go but step out and it took me a couple of minutes to finally make that step,” she said. “It’s very scary and the reaction I had was almost paralyzing.”

The virtual reality simulations trick your brain into thinking you are in a real danger situation and they produce physiological reactions.

Many of the firefighter paramedics Tuesday afternoon reported elevated heart rates, shaking in their legs and hands, sweating and genuine fear.

One even fell to the ground screaming after slipping off of the virtual wooden platform atop the virtual skyscraper.

“My heart is still racing. I feel like I’m going to cry,” she said.

This technology is still in the development stage and it is unique to Colorado.

They are testing the training on local emergency responders and in college classrooms. Their hope is that the technology will soon be available to all police, fire and EMS agencies for training.

“We really believe that VR is a game changer across the board with mental health,” Vogl said.

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