Air Force turns to VR for suicide prevention training

U.S. Senior Airman Joshua Little, 1st Operations Support Squadron intel analyst, use a virtual reality system brought to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, by Airmen from the 547th Intelligence Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Feb. 12, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Tristan Biese)

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The Air Force is turning to virtual reality technology to train its airmen to recognize and help others at risk of self-harm.

The service is using VR training to put airmen in life-like situations to practice how to get a distressed person help. With social distancing requirements, in-person training and face-to-face conversations pose a greater risk for COVID-19 transmission, a risk reduced by VR training with users communicating through a headset.

The Air Force has also embraced VR for other training, like flying and maintenance.

The rate of airmen dying by suicide has increased in the past few years, up from a 2018 rate of 18.5 per 100,000 to 25.1 per 100,000 in 2019, according to recent DOD data. Conclusive data on the rate in 2020 is not available, but initial reports indicate a further increase during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are excited and highly motivated to be the catalyst for this innovative suicide prevention program,” Brig. Gen. Norman West, Air Mobility Command surgeon general, said in a release. “The VR scenario is very realistic and this is the type of training we need to save lives in the real world. One life lost to suicide is too many.”

The technology was recently used in a training session at Travis Air Force Base in California at the behest of the Air Mobility Command leader, Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost. New modules were tested featuring clips of actors and on-screen prompts for what trainees should say, according to a video posted by the Air Force. Other modules are in development for instructors and other members of the Air Force working on suicide prevention.

The technology works by guiding airmen through a training session and then into a role-playing scenario where they speak directly with an actor who displays distress signs. A coach listens in on the session, and if trainees are not following procedures, they are reminded of specific questions they are supposed to ask, like “Do you have a gun in the house?” or “Are you thinking about harming yourself?”

“We believe this training will not only save lives but prepare our Airmen for tough conversations that will build a more resilient force,” said Victor Jones, AMC Suicide Prevention program manager.

Leaders overseeing the program are also using the tech to pick up on subtleties in how airmen interact with the VR experience.

“[W]hen someone needs to say something tough, they don’t say it as loud as the rest of what they say,” according to the release. That’s a data point trainers are using to encourage airmen to be confident in getting others help.

Spouses of airmen are also being offered the training and it is expected to continue as more modules are created by Moth and Flame, the VR studio contracted to make the content.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line

-In this Story-

Air Force, emerging technology, suicide prevention, Virtual reality
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