Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In a Violent Mexican City, Virtual Therapy for Real Trauma

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In a Violent Mexican City, Virtual Therapy for Real Trauma

Article excerpt

A program similar to the one used by the United States military to treat Iraq war veterans is having success on victims of the dangers of daily life in Ciudad Juarez.

Every time Erica Gonzalez put the video goggles on, the details of her four days in captivity came rushing back to her. She could smell the sweaty T-shirt used to cover her head, taste the ash in the beer bottles that she was made to drink water from and hear her abductors' muffled conversations.

Ciudad Juarez is a front line in a war on organized crime.

"It was scary to go through it again," Ms. Gonzalez said, "but I said, 'It's good for me."'

Ms. Gonzalez, 18, is one of 25 patients who recently completed a virtual therapy program similar to the one used by the United States military to treat Iraq war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Created by doctors and psychologists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the pilot project was aimed at filling a void in mental health services for Ciudad Juarez's shellshocked residents.

The city has been one of the main areas in President Felipe Calderon's assault on organized crime.

The scenes that appear in the goggles were created for residents of Juarez, which in recent years has had the highest murder rate in Mexico. The goggles show one of six scenes, including an armed robbery, a police checkpoint, a safe house for kidnappings and a shootout between cartel gunmen and army soldiers. Therapists show patients the scenes most closely related to their experience, and then further tailor the sessions to address their trauma more specifically, for instance by playing a song heard during their ordeal.

The program sharply reduced post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, with a success rate of 80 percent, organizers said.

"There has been a lot of attention to the problem of violence, which is understood as public safety, drug trafficking and police," said Hugo Almada, who does research on the psychological toll of violence at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez. …

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