Online Role-Play Tool Shows Military Families How to Help Their Heroes

The young serviceman is back from deployment, safe again in his family home but having trouble sleeping, drinking more than usual, and uninterested in old friends and activities. His parents’ concern heightens with each day, but they aren’t sure how to approach their son without making matters worse.

It’s one of three scenarios that play out in an interactive online simulation designed to teach family of returning service members how to identify post-deployment stress in their loved ones, how to have positive conversations with them about their mental health and how to motivate them to seek the assistance they need.

Part of the Veterans Administration’s “Be a Hero to Yours” campaign, the online role-playing simulation is a joint effort of the VA’s Rocky Mountain Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center and the digital design company Kognito. It can be accessed free through 2015 at www.familyofheroes.com.

“Families and friends play a vital role in helping veterans through the challenges they face every day,” explained Virginia Gray, congressional liaison and executive correspondence for the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System, but it can be tough for them to know when and how to react. The simulation helps by allowing family members to try out various conversational approaches with realistic-sounding avatars before initiating what can be difficult talks about mental health with their loved ones.

The “Family of Heroes” simulation tool also provides links to local VA resources. While such services have come under criticism recently for being too slow to help, Gray reaffirmed that “the VA is committed to getting our veterans quality healthcare when they need it. The vast majority of our appointments are scheduled within 30 days of the requested date. Thanks to the Veterans Choice Program, when we cannot schedule a veteran within that 30-day window, we can offer them the option of being seen by one of our community healthcare partners.”

Troubling Numbers

Statistics prove that such help is desperately needed. Many veterans are returning from deployment with serious mental health issues. A RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research paper, in fact, found that about 20% of the 1.7 million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression. Yet, a pair of studies indicates that only about 30% to 40% of those who screen positive for serious emotional problems seek help from a mental health professional.

Such mental health issues also commonly co-occur with problematic alcohol and drug use, which can become a form of self-medication. A Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey of veterans found that more than 7% meet the criteria for a substance use disorder. And the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs records that almost one out of three veterans seeking help for a substance use disorder also has PTSD.

Practicing With Avatars

Although the “Family of Heroes” simulation uses animated avatars to guide visitors through the scenarios, the conversations it depicts are based on actual interviews with service members and their families. In one, a husband argues with his wife over the pressure he feels to socialize, something that he enjoyed before deployment but now finds overwhelming. In another, a young servicewoman talks with her husband of her distress at returning after a year’s deployment to find her children uncomfortable around her and her role as primary caregiver usurped by her mother. And then there is the father and mother concerned about the disturbing changes they see in their son.

Viewers get a chance to play the role of the family member as they seek to understand the veteran, work to deescalate conflict and point them toward help. It’s practice that can then help them in their own conversations.

A 2011 study confirms the effectiveness of the simulation, showing that 79% of study participants who completed the training went on to discuss their concerns with the veteran in their life. They also recorded feeling more prepared and more likely to recognize post-deployment stress and to address it. Of the veterans who were approached by the study participants, 22% went on to receive mental health treatment.

The tool is, the study concluded, one more way to engage families and increase the number of veterans who reach out to the VA, helping to give them the homecoming they’ve earned. “Survival, making it home, is not enough,” Gray said. “Living the quality life that they deserve is the ultimate goal.”



“Using an Avatar-Based Simulation to Train Families to Motivate Veterans With Post-Deployment Stress to Seek Help at the VA”


“The Critical Need for Mental Health Professionals Trained to Treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury”


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