In 2018, as part of the Not Impossible Awards, Dr. Bordnick was awarded the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Association sponsored Faces of the Fearless Healthcare Innovation Award. The submissions, named VR-Project Δ (Delta) and VR-Qualis Est Vita (Quality of Life), are being developed by Dr. Patrick Bordnick, dean and professor from the Tulane School of Social Work. VR-Project Δ will put patients into realistic virtual worlds using smartphone-based virtual reality, recreating situations that identify and trigger cravings akin to drug and alcohol addiction. This tool allows for individualized patient diagnostics and aids in treatment by teaching coping mechanisms to avoid relapse. The other application, VR-Qualis Est Vita, uses virtual reality to help people with autism develop interpersonal skills.
This interview is part of our two-month dedication to the theme of Addiction, which will unfold throughout the rest of September.
One of the most challenging aspects about recovering from an addiction is the prospect of relapsing. While recovery can feel attainable in certain contexts, like your therapist’s office or an inpatient rehabilitation center, it can feel a lot less secure in “real-world” contexts where you’re reintroduced to the people and places that may trigger cravings. What if Virtual Reality could allow you the opportunity to practice coping skills in those real-world, high-risk relapse environments, from the safety of a clinician’s office? That’s the idea driving Patrick Bordnick’s pioneering work of bringing Virtual Reality into the clinical setting.
VR technology allows people to become totally immersed in visually realistic virtual simulations. About twenty years ago, Patrick’s background in behavioral research and addiction gave him the idea to create VR simulations of environments that would potentially trigger relapse in a recovering addict – environments like a bar, a party, or a heroin den. Patients enter and engage with these VR simulations in the presence of a therapist who simultaneously asks them questions, encourages them to tune into what they’re feeling and what specifically is triggering them to use, whether it’s peer pressure, social anxiety, or feelings of low self-worth or unattractiveness. Meanwhile the clinician is teaching them coping skills in “real time,” such as assertiveness, self-talk, urge surfing, and breathwork.
Exposure therapy has been practiced in psychotherapy for a long time, but Patrick’s work takes this to the next level with the implementation of VR. The technology is advancing rapidly, and Patrick hopes it will eventually be accessible to every practitioner or social worker working on the front lines of addiction, letting those in recovery practice coping skills in a safe low-stakes setting, while gaining a more nuanced understanding of their cravings and their addictions.]