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US Navy Uses VR To Train Sailors On Suicide And Sexual Assault Prevention

The new virtual reality training program is helping sailors learn about mental health and equip them with the skills to deal with these situations

Sailors assigned to the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63) participate in an interactive virtual reality training for suicide prevention hosted by Afloat Training Group Pacific (ATGPAC). (U.S. Navy photo by Joseph Millar)

The Surface Force has achieved a new milestone in preventing suicide by using a unique program that features virtual reality training. The Afloat Training Group Pacific (ATGPAC) started a program to prevent suicide and sexual assault via an interactive training solution through VR. 

The training is created for sailors to help them understand how to handle difficult conversations about mental health. It equips them with tools and experiences to improve their ability to navigate these discussions.

Cmdr. Justin Bernard, deputy force chaplain assigned to Commander, Naval Surface Force Pacific says, “It is an opportunity to put technology in the hands of sailors that they’re familiar with and that’s on the cutting edge. It delivers in real-time in a way that they understand the skills they need to intervene in a suicidal situation.”

Preventing suicide with VR

Even though it’s new to San Diego, the program has been in progress for some time now with Bernard playing a key role in its creation. He assisted the ATGPAC leadership by supervising the initial testing of the program with the crew of the USS Daniel Inouye (DDG 118), a destroyer based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Within a week, more than 200 sailors completed both the suicide prevention and sexual assault prevention pilot training modules. Bernard also led small group discussions and received immediate feedback from the sailors during their training. ATGPAC then used the feedback from the pilot to shape the current version of the suicide prevention module, with the sexual assault prevention module also making progress.

“We see suicidal trends every year,” said Bernard. “They go up and down by the year but we still lose sailors to suicide every year. I don’t think that any effort is too large to try and stop that.”

A desire for more VR experiences

Currently, the Navy trains sailors in suicide prevention through lecture-style courses, which tend to lack practical application and context. The VR training’s focus on experiential learning aims to offer a more immersive experience on these crucial issues.

Most of the sailors on the Daniel Inouye expressed a desire for this to become the regular annual training method. ATGPAC is now actively working on this initiative, as the program is being implemented on ships in San Diego with the suicide prevention module fully operational.

Sailors can complete the training in half an hour, guiding them from encountering someone with suicidal thoughts to engaging in a conversation and virtually assisting them in getting the necessary help.

In describing his own experience with the training, Bernard explains, “You’re sitting face to face in the headset with someone who is struggling with thoughts of suicide, and you’re given prompts that help guide your discussion. So you’re not just looking at facts on a screen, you’re having a conversation with someone who could be the person in the rack next to you. It’s putting flesh to that issue.”

His words resonated with many participants. Gas Turbine Systems Technician (Mechanical) 3rd Class Lee Oda shared that he now feels more self-assured in his capacity to ask difficult questions and prevent someone from taking their life.

Written By

Isa Muhammad is a writer and video game journalist covering many aspects of entertainment media including the film industry. He's steadily writing his way to the sharp end of journalism and enjoys staying informed. If he's not reading, playing video games or catching up on his favourite TV series, then he's probably writing about them.

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