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Air Force tests suicide prevention training with virtual reality system

Using a virtual reality headset, an Airman at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., participates in a suicide prevention scenario. Photo by Nicholas Pilch/U.S. Air Force
Using a virtual reality headset, an Airman at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., participates in a suicide prevention scenario. Photo by Nicholas Pilch/U.S. Air Force

Feb. 22 (UPI) -- A suicide prevention training program, using virtual reality, was tested last week at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., the U.S. Air Force said on Monday.

Members of the 60th Air Mobility Wing, using virtual reality headsets, participated in a 30-minute training scenario in which they encounter an emotionally distressed individual.

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Asking the proper questions, and urging the individual to seek help, are the goals of the exercise, according to Air Force officials.

"The unique part of this VR training is that it's voice-activated, so you're required to say things out loud that maybe you've never had to say before," MSgt. Shawn Dougherty, a program facilitator, said in a press release. "[You'll need to actually say] phrases to Airmen in distress like 'Do you have a gun in the house?' or 'Are you thinking about harming yourself?'"

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"This module is an Airman-to-Airman scenario," Dougherty added. "The training gives you an opportunity to be face-to-face with another Airman, in an Airman's perspective with someone that's in distress. You are trying to talk them down, resolve the situation, figure out what is going on with him and find out the best scenario to get him to safety."

The Defense Department sees suicide as a growing problem. Annual statistics indicate growth in the number of suicides of active-duty and reserve members of the military.

There were 342 deaths by suicide in the military population in Calendar Year 2019, or 25.9 per 100,000. The figures compare to 287 military suicides, or 22.1 per 100,000 in Calendar Year 2017, a Defense Department report indicates.

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By comparison, a National Institute of Mental Health report notes that although suicide rates for the general population increased by 35 percent between 1999 and 2018, the rate was 14.2 per 100,000 in 2018.

A study published in December 2020 in the American Journal of Public Health indicated that a key to lowering the military suicide rate could be "lethal means counseling" and safe storage of weapons, notably gunlocks and safes.

The New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University involved 232 firearm-owning members of the Mississippi National Guard in the study.

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"The findings show that service members may benefit from lethal means counseling and distribution of cable locks, perhaps at the point when a person enters the service," Michael Anestis, research center executive director, said when the study was release.

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