SANTA CRUZ – In an empty warehouse in a seedy part of virtual reality, a methadone-dependant addict in a Santa Cruz recovery program can test his resolve to stay away from illegal drugs, thanks to a unique clinical trial at Janus of Santa Cruz, a nonprofit corporation for people with chemical dependencies and their families.
“It is the first really new therapeutic tool in the field of addiction in many years,” said David Molina, a counselor and Avatar Based Recovery Project Manager. Molina, with other counselors at the Janus Community Clinic program, have contributed to the early development of the program which has now been expanded to include an online comprehensive educational component as well.
The program, which is unique to Janus of Santa Cruz, has been effective in speeding up the recovery process and producing changes in attitude and behavior, said Molina, noting that a gang member went inactive after participating in the program and another client took dramatic action to handle long-standing health issues.
“We’re barely scratching the surface of our potential,” Molina said.
The Avatar Based Recovery Project, launched in 2009 with a small cohort at the agency’s methadone clinic, augments traditional drug recovery treatment by introducing addicts to a virtual world where counselor and client can work through an infinite number of therapeutic scenarios as fictional characters in a fictional beach town. The program has been supported by the companies and community grants.
The technology, originally created for military training, and used in recent years to treat other psychological problems, has been adapted by InWorld Solutions of Palo Alto with the help of Janus counselors to support a new way of providing addiction treatment and other behavioral health care problems.
“The avatar [fictional digital character] takes a lot of the denial, out of the initial process especially, of counseling,” said Rod Libbey, executive director of Janus. This is really important. There’s a lot of shame and a lot of denial in being a substance abuser.”
The virtual world also allows counselors to provide expanded services to clients who might not necessarily receive them, such as the disabled, incarcerated, or people who have trouble getting transportation.
A second trial group has recently been invited to participate in the program, which includes, for the first time, an in-depth educational recovery component created by Thrive Research of Los Altos. The new program involves daily contact with the client and introduces clients to key themes of recovery. It also provides accountability for clients who are asked to check in daily from wherever they are and summarizes data helping counselors develop treatment plans, which frees up time for more tailored face-to-face counseling.
Santa Cruz County Jail inmates and residents at the Mandanaro Baskin Center, where addicts are recovering with their young children, will also be participating in this round of the trial.
“In certain cases, it works better than the imaginative therapy that we used to use,” said Ivana Steigman, a medical doctor and psychologist, who has been the creator and the guiding force behind the project while at InWorld, which built the virtual reality community and, in her current position as vice president of behavioral content and design, at Thrive Research, which is responsible for creating the separate educational component.
“The preliminary study shows it make the patient more compliant and more successful in their recovery and makes the clinicians more effective,” Steigman said. She expects the educational component to be available on mobile devices soon as well. “There’s just a lot that they can do. They can use the virtual reality in a very targeted way.”
This is a new way to provide services that essentially doubles the amount of interaction with a treatment-resistant population, said M’Liss Keesling, Santa Cruz County inmate programs coordinator.
“The clinical research is saying this is really a whole new unexplored avenue to reach people,” Keesling said. “Clients really respond to this where they haven’t responded in a face-to-face. I think it’s pretty exciting.”