Scheduled to be distributed in December of 2008 for mandatory viewing by all active and reserve US-military units, a new interactive video titled Beyond the Front aims to encourage soldiers to seek help when dealing with mental health issues. With a dramatic increase in suicides since the start of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military hopes this tool is a step in the right direction.
Suicides among American soldiers have increased by 46 per cent overall since the beginning of the Iraq War. In the Army, they have gone from 79 to 115 last year, not counting failed suicide attempts.
Senior officials expect the number to keep rising this year, even potentially surpassing the suicide rate in the general American population, which stands at 19.5 per 100,000 people. Such a spike in military suicide has not been seen since the Vietnam War. Read More...
The US Military is hoping that the new mandatory interactive video will help curb this trend. Developed by Will Interactive, Beyond the Front is based on the company’s patented “Interactive Behavior Modification System”. The System creates computer-based interactive movies in which virtual experiences combine education, training and entertainment.
The game stars a fictional soldier, Specialist Kyle Norton who is suddenly experiencing a number of personal problems. In the story, Norton is hit by relationship troubles, financial problems and scrapes with the law; things Army research shows are major events that precipitate suicide.
To add to his despair, Norton learns via email that his fiancée has become pregnant by another man and suffers further devastation when one of his best friends is killed in an ambush.
During the video, questions appear on the screen at key moments, asking the viewer to decide whether to get help, by opening up to friends, his sergeant or a chaplain. Depending on the choices made, Norton will feel better or sink deeper into suicidal thoughts. The goal is to immerse the viewer into Norton's life in a way that makes preventive lessons stick.
"People are drawn into it, they see themselves because [the situations in the movie] are very realistic," says Sharon Sloane, president and chief executive officer of WILL Interactive, in a news report. "The problems resonate, and they feel the emotions of the characters because they look like and sound like and behave like them, so it becomes a first-person experience."
"I know at least 10 soldiers who could be [Norton]," said Lieutenant General David P. Valcourt, deputy commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, quoted in a news report. Recalling that when he first showed his staff the video, one worker pulled him aside and told him, "Sir, that was me."
"It sure beats the heck out of a PowerPoint or the first sergeant standing in front of the formation and saying, 'I don't want anyone to hurt themselves this weekend", said Valcourt.
The second goal of the game is to help alleviate the stigma surrounding the need to ask for help when dealing with personal and mental health issues. In many cases, individuals find it difficult to seek help for a mental disorder or even mild post-traumatic stress disorder in a military environment that stresses toughness and bravery.
"It's time we made everyone in uniform aware that the act of reaching out for help is one of the most courageous acts – and one of the first steps – to reclaiming your career and future," was quoted Admiral Mike Mullen.
The military service plans to send about 14,000 copies of the game out by December. The initiative is part of an Army suicide prevention program costing almost $1 million to educate soldiers about the dangers of not seeking help when they most need it.
Despite the noble goals of the game, some experts warn that such a realistic simulation may lead to more problems than it solves.
Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, viewed part of the video and warned that it is risky to widely distribute such a tool without scientific evaluation determining its impact on a suicidal person. "Some media presentations about suicide can increase the likelihood of suicidal behavior, so there is a potential danger," he said.
Readers can watch a demo of the interactive video here.