High-tech mental health support for first responders gets provincial funding boost

U of A programs use virtual reality and online gaming to help people overcome PTSD and build resilience.


HiMARC director Suzette Brémault-Phillips (left) demonstrates the 3MDR virtual reality therapy program with Leduc-Beaumont MLA Brad Rutherford in August 2019. The VR therapy is one of two U of A programs receiving new provincial funding to support mental health for first responders affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Chelsea Jones)

The provincial government is supporting a pair of University of Alberta research initiatives in an effort to combat the toll COVID-19 is inflicting on military, veterans, first responders and their families.

The U of A-led Heroes in Mind, Advocacy and Research Consortium (HiMARC) that supports mental health for military, veterans and first responders received $362,000 as part of the Alberta government's COVID-19 Mental Health and Addiction Action Plan for two programs that build resilience or rehabilitate those suffering from PTSD or moral injury.

"The pandemic is taking a significant toll on the mental health of police, firefighters, paramedics and military members," said Suzette Brémault-Phillips, director of HiMARC and professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. "HiMARC aims to enhance resilience, address trauma and mental health challenges when they arise, and facilitate successful return to work and life transitions."

Of the funds, $162,000 is earmarked to help make HiMARC's 3MDR immersive virtual reality therapy available for public safety personnel, front-line health workers, military members and veterans who might have experienced trauma as a result of dealing with COVID-19.

The virtual reality-assisted trauma therapy sees those suffering from PTSD walk on a treadmill in front of a large screen that projects self-selected images of their trauma. Participants experience and identify associated emotions, and the memories and any sensory and affective information associated with the trauma are reintegrated, or reconsolidated.

The intervention, which is being studied by Brémault-Phillips and her team at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, was developed in the Netherlands by Eric Vermetten, chief psychiatrist with the Dutch Ministry of Defence. Brémault-Phillips said the treatment helps patients reconsolidate the memory in a way that allows them to regulate their thoughts and emotions so they no longer avoid the trauma.

"They briefly touch the trauma, and let it go, then touch another one, and do likewise," she said. "What we are seeing is that people who have treatment-resistant PTSD are able to get on with their lives, function again, sleep better, engage with others and be the parents they want to be.

"I've never seen anything like this in my 25 years of clinical experience, where people are actually overcoming PTSD."

The other $200,000 is being used for an online platform designed to build resilience among military, veterans and public safety personnel. Using principles of gamification, participants will use the platform to learn and practise resilience skills individually and as part of a team through a number of engaging modules of varying themes, intensity and modalities, Brémault-Phillips explained.

She noted the Canadian Armed Forces and public safety personnel organizations have a focus on resilience, with the intent of equipping members and their families with skills to adapt to different situations at any point in the course of service.

"Organizations want things to be interactive and engaging to members, that give them tools to help them regulate their fears, their anxieties, their enthusiasm, their thinking, and face whatever they need to," she said.

"The military and public safety personnel need to respond to everything from COVID-19 to forest fires right now, and families are going to be stretched and impacted."

"There are going to be financial challenges as well as the strains on members and their families knowing that family members are going into harm's way, and they need different skills to be able handle different situations."

HiMARC was established at the U of A in 2018 to develop and implement innovative solutions to improve operational readiness, resilience and growth, as well as the health and well-being of organizations, military members, veterans, public safety personnel and their families.

Brémault-Phillips said she is grateful for support from the provincial government, and recognition of HiMARC's efforts to support military members, veterans and public safety personnel and their families through research, teaching and service.

"The Alberta government has put a substantial and unprecedented amount of money into mental health supports," she said. "They want to demonstrate their support for mental health in general, including for those who serve and have served us."