By Christos Makridis
Metaverse platform 2B3D announced the first-of-its-kind “virtual reality medical environment,” which delivers live, free mental health services to military veterans via the metaverse. Owned and operated by military veterans, 2B3D is deploying new treatment via technology that has the potential to vastly improve the physical and mental health of veterans over the internet.
Facts about veteran suicide and mental health
There is a bipartisan recognition that urgent responses are needed to reduce veteran suicide in America. “Veteran suicide is still too high, but we are making progress… there is still work to do so that one day we are speaking of veteran suicide in the past tense,” said U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy on September 20. After the Taliban takeover last summer, Cassidy led a bipartisan group of senators advocating outreach to veterans who served in Afghanistan to provide mental health resources in response to an uptick in veteran suicide hotline calls.
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, which has only intensified over the past two years following a surge of mental health declines during the lock downs across states. But the incidence of suicide falls more heavily on some groups over others, especially veterans. “Veterans bear a disproportionate but preventable burden… veteran suicide-related deaths are also increasing at a greater rate than that of the general U.S. population: from 2001 to 2019, the rate of suicide among veterans increased nearly 36% relative to an increase of 30% in the general population,” said Christopher Jones, acting director of Public Health Service at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in a congressional testimony in June.
Suicide can be particularly difficult problem to prevent because it is often the result of a cluster of underlying factors, which may include any combination of mental health and substance abuse issues, economic and housing insecurity, loneliness and high stress. Post-traumatic stress disorder also increases the risk of a suicide attempt. A Veterans Affairs study on 60,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found 13.5% of deployed and undeployed vets screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s hard to tell how that figure compares with stress disorder rates in veterans from earlier armed conflicts, since the disorder wasn’t given its name until 1980. Conditions with the same basic symptoms and risk factors were called “Post-Vietnam Syndrome” and caused up to 25% of Vietnam veterans to require interventions and treatment.
Much needed remedies
One of the Department of Veteran Affair’s main responses to curb veteran suicide attempts is through a crisis line, namely a suicide prevention hotline. A person does not need to be enrolled in benefits to call these lines, so family members are often encouraged to call on behalf of a loved one who may be having suicidal thoughts or behaviors. However, the efficacy of a phone call to help someone in a life or death situation depends on the competency and availability of the person on the line.
Research into the suicide hotline by the Veterans Affair’s inspector general revealed that as many as a third of calls placed go unanswered. Frontline workers tasked with the responsibility of answering these calls have historically spent little time on the phone or requested to leave before their shift was over, causing calls to be rerouted to back-up centers where operators lacked sufficient training to address veterans in crisis. Hearing a busy signal exacerbates suicidal thoughts and other mental health challenges among veterans on the receiving line.
Although the House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill in 2016 requiring the Veteran’s Affairs to ensure that all telephone calls, text messages and other communications received by the crisis line are answered in a timely manner by an appropriately qualified person, finding enough of those qualified individuals remains a challenge. For example, there has been a lot of staff turnover, especially over the past two years, and the quality of care has changed in facilities.
While lack of skilled staff is a major roadblock in ensuring that veterans receive help, another challenge is the delivery mechanism: care must be accessible when the veteran needs it, which might happen at any time of the day, and the therapies must be enjoyable. Support should be integrated into veterans’ daily lives.
One potential solution is the use of chatbots that are powered by artificial intelligence, as the National Artificial Intelligence Institute at the Department of Veterans Affairs is pioneering through their partnerships with industry in technology sprints. Building reliable chatbots is a useful goal for veterans who have simple queries, but it may not be a substitute for therapy.
“These are problems that require humans interfacing with humans… the sooner we leverage technology to create virtual reality environments that emulate the human-to-human aspect of treatment, then we can augment that with proven treatments that can maximize artificial intelligence or machine learning. Right now the cart is in front of the horse,” said retired Col. Mark Schonberg, chief of staff at 2B3D.
2B3D’s upcoming beta launch
The prototype beta version for 2B3D’s metaverse environment for veterans simulates a typical analog medical clinic or center. The individual’s avatar walks into the facility and is then evaluated by one of the counselors. Depending on that evaluation, a subject could be referred to group counseling, scheduled a follow-up appointment in the real world, execute individual therapy sessions, or in extreme cases referred to 911 services. However, the crisis support aspect is simply one option within the virtual reality medical environment. The environment can become a place where disadvantaged veterans can spend time together and interact with others experiencing similar challenges.
2B3D’s solution also addresses substance use and addiction. Treatment protocols are initiated for addiction prior to, or simultaneously with, virtual reality treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder for best results. During the beta testing of the virtual reality medical environment, 2B3D partnered with BioCorRx, which is addressing the challenges of addiction treatment using a holistic approach of cognitive behavior therapy and prescribed medication. Select resources from BioCorRx’s library of digital cognitive behavior therapy modules will be discoverable to visitors to the Phase I environment and can be engaged with at any time.
Over half of today’s veterans flock to gaming to alleviate service-induced stress since they provide an engaging, suspense-filled, and interactive experience. The non-clinical and autonomous setting also encourages veterans to open up and share in ways they may be unwilling to do within the confines of a hospital facility.
“We are working to take already proven post-traumatic stress disorder symptom-reducing programs and not only duplicate them in virtual reality, but also gamify them to make healing fun… the first test patient in our current trials showed results of improved rebalancing of the brain by 34% of the brain overall and over 60% in damaged low functioning centers,” said Robert Bell, president of 2B3D.
By borrowing from the immersive environments and collaborative team aspects of games that are popular with veterans, a virtual reality medical environment can deliver support in a way that veterans already enjoy and are comfortable with at any hour of the day, with only a headset and the internet.
Technological improvements, such as expanded 5G coverage and satellite-based solutions like Starlink, and the expansion of artificial intelligence provide additional momentum for virtual reality.
“Today, we have much more data available to us that we can use to understand and identify suicidal ideation, crisis, and risk for self-harm—at the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs], for example, we have genomic information from the Million Vet Program and transcript data from crisis lines like the VA Veterans Crisis Line… new technology like artificial intelligence will never replace the expertise, intuition, and judgment of care teams, but it offers the promise of perspective—an additional safety net that can sift through big data and help us to learn and flag those who could be in need and connect them quickly to the care they need.” said Gil Alterovitz, director of the National AI Institute at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The adoption of metaverse experiences will also come with a wide array of blockchain based complementary assets. 2B3D is already planning to deploy non-fungible tokens to ensure identity management seamlessly across platforms in virtual reality medical environment so that users can avoid the hassle and risk of sharing personal and identifiable information whenever they consent to releasing it for therapies. Whether it is group therapy or listening to live music, the metaverse will unlock new possibilities for human flourishing among veterans and individuals at large.
Ahead of its platform launch, 2B3D will have an non-fungible token sale in early Q4, details forthcoming via its website and social channels. The proceeds will be used to fund further development of its metaverse environments; extra funds will support the Forge Forward Project.