A photo of a man wearing a VR headset. The background is a city street.
The project, “A Virtual Reality Brief Violence Intervention: Preventing gun violence among violently injured adults,” is supported by a new three-year $1.95 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Contributed photo).

A new VCU project seeks to reduce gun violence with the help of virtual reality

The CDC-funded study will combine cutting-edge technology with evidence-based practices to reduce gun violence and unintentional firearm injuries.

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Across the country, the hospital has become a critical location for gun violence prevention: Violently injured adults are at an increased risk of reinjury and mortality after being discharged, and they are 88 times more likely to engage in retaliatory violence.       

Yet such patients are often difficult to engage in intervention. A new project at Virginia Commonwealth University will seek to reach high-risk patients and reduce gun violence, injury and death through a hospital-based program using virtual reality technology.

“We aim to offer cutting-edge technology paired with evidence-based practices to reduce gun violence,” said Nicholas Thomson, Ph.D., director of research for the Injury and Violence Prevention Program at the VCU Health Trauma Center, which in the past decade has played a leadership role at the local, state, national and international level through education, innovative research and combined hospital-community outreach.

“We are bringing world-leading technology and the best prevention science to the Richmond community with the goal of reducing gun violence and unintentional firearm injury,” said Thomson, who is an associate professor in VCU’s departments of Surgery and Psychology at VCU.

The project, “A Virtual Reality Brief Violence Intervention: Preventing Gun Violence Among Violently Injured Adults,” is supported by a new three-year, $1.95 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thomson, who is leading the study, said it will be the first virtual reality mental health intervention that is designed to reduce gun violence. It will involve a randomized control trial of 220 violently injured adults who will experience the Brief Violence Intervention VR, or BVI-VR, developed by the researchers.

A photo of a man sitting by a couch and holding a VR headset.
Nicholas Thomson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the departments of surgery and psychology at VCU and director of research for the Injury and Violence Prevention Program. (Contributed photo).

BVI-VR will provide patients with culturally relevant immersive stories and gameplay while providing them with psychoeducation and intervention to increase resiliency to retaliatory firearm-related violence across five steps: emotion regulation and managing trauma, conflict resolution and nonviolent alternatives, gun safety, future goals and aspirations, and community resource connection.

“By providing people with an alternative approach to violence intervention, we will see greater engagement in treatment and retention of proven strategies to improve mental health,” Thomson said. “Unique to this project, we are partnering with Richmond community resources to show users about local community partners that can support sustained improvements, such as support with career goals, mental health resources [and] family services.”

In addition to Thomson, the study will include co-investigators Michel Aboutanos, M.D., MPH, a professor in the Department of Surgery in VCU’s School of Medicine and medical director of the Level I trauma center and of the Injury and Violence Prevention Program at VCU Medical Center; Terri Sullivan, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and director of the Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth DevelopmentAlbert Farrell, Ph.D., emeritus professor of psychology and founder of the Clark-Hill Institute; and Robert Perera, Ph.D., associate professor and graduate program director in the Department of Biostatistics in the School of Population Health.