An Airman from the 6th Air Refueling Wing participates in a Virtual Reality suicide prevention training at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, on Sept. 29, 2021. 

Oct 28 2021

Air Force Turns to VR Training Tools to Aid in Suicide Prevention

The service branch has been using virtual reality to make it easier for airmen to get help.

For several years now, the Air Force has been using virtual reality tools to train airmen for flight simulationsmaintenance and other tasks. Now it’s using VR for as urgent an issue as any: helping to prevent suicide among Air Force servicemembers.

In late September, the 6th Air Refueling Wing Integrated Resilience Team began offering VR training tools for airmen engaged in suicide prevention training. According to a DOD release, the training involved participants wearing VR headsets and “placed participants into a scenario in which they interact with a person who is in obvious emotional distress.”

The aim of the course is to have the participant convince the distressed person, a virtual actor, to reach out for help.

“This is the future,” Lisa Williams, the 6th ARW Integrated Resilience Office community support coordinator, said in a press release. “This technology allows us to provide options that will best fit the needs and skill sets of our Airmen and civilians who are required to go through our annual training.”

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Air Force Hopes VR Can Help Reduce Suicides Among Airmen

The VR suicide prevention training built on tests the Air Force launched earlier this year with leaders from across the 60th Air Mobility Wing.

As part of the training, if participants do not get the virtual actor to seek help, a training coach comes in to help.

“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 February press 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.”

According to The New York Times, Air Force officials said earlier this year that they intend to train at least 10,000 airmen with the program in 2021.

According to data released on Sept. 30, the U.S. military saw a 15 percent increase in deaths by suicides across the service branches in 2020, with the increases largely driven by deaths in the Army National Guard, Army and Marine Corps. Deaths by suicide in the Air Force held steady at 109 compared to the year before.

“The training definitely puts you out of your comfort zone,” Tech. Sgt. William Parisse, a 6th ARW occupational safety technician who participated in the training, said in the DOD release. “It forces you to critically think about what you’re going to say or do, and depending on what you choose, that distressed person will react.”

The VR training has better prepared him for encounters with colleagues who seem to be in distress, Parisse said.

“We are just getting started,” Williams said. “We have already seen the impacts VR has had with SAPR (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response) training and we are eager to provide our Airmen with these innovative resources. Ultimately, it allows them to push themselves further, in order to be as prepared as possible to save someone’s life.”

RELATED: How are agencies using VR to train employees for a variety of scenarios?

U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Hiram Martinez