Once the stuff of movies like Strange Days and Total Recall, virtual reality is increasingly becoming a “real” part of our world. While most people still consider it a means of entertainment, a body of research shows that it is not just a means of escapism, but a tool that when coupled with other therapies has profound implications for survivors of trauma, including human trafficking.
This concept is actually not a new one; in fact, it’s a logical extension of exposure-based therapy, which originated in South Africa in the 1950s to treat phobias and anxiety. As the name suggests, this involves introducing the object of the fear or anguish in a controlled and safe way, thereby gradually reducing the individual’s sensitivity so they are no longer triggered when they encounter it in daily life. Since then, this therapy has taken various forms, including EMDR (rapid eye movement and/or tapping during exposure) and repeatedly talking about an experience until the emotional component loses its power over the person’s thoughts and actions. Essentially, exposure therapy is rooted in the work Pavlov, treating the symptoms as conditioned responses that can be reversed. Indeed, clinicians have had great success in using it to treat PTSD, which is extremely common among people who have endured trauma, be it a singular event such as a car accident or ongoing, such as serving in a warzone or being subjected to abuse. Research has shown that the vast majority of human trafficking survivors exhibit PTSD symptoms, including problems with sleeping and focusing, hypervigilance, and anxiety and aggression. A 2013 study found that virtual reality exposure-based therapy was at least effective than other forms of exposure therapy in the treatment of PTSD. It creates an immersive experience that allows the individual to process and make behavioral changes in real-time, thus returning to them a sense of control over their circumstances. At the time, researchers cited the need for further studies on the efficacy of this method, as well as more standardized protocols.
Flash forward to 2019, and the release of an immersive platform, VR-Eval, that is promising to be a game-changer for trafficking survivors. As mentioned above, talk therapy is extremely valuable, in and of itself and as part of an exposure protocol. However, for many survivors, being vulnerable enough to share their experiences is extremely challenging, in part because of concern that they will feel judged for being trafficked or acts they were forced to perform by the trafficker. VR Eval allows the user to create an avatar and converse with a trauma-informed therapist while retaining the security anonymity provides. They may also feel more comfortable revealing information leading to the identification and arrest of the traffickers.
VR-Eval was developed by Dr. Brooke Bello, CEO of the anti-sexual violence and trafficking organization, More Too Life, in partnership with Chance Glasco, creator of the game “Call to Duty.” No doubt the platform – and exposure therapy as a whole – will continue to evolve in an effort to better serve survivors; however, its successes have already proven to be a testament to the power of the human mind to heal from even the worse atrocities.