January 18th, 2013
10:43 AM ET

Skip Rizzo: Deploying virtual therapies for the real stresses of combat

By The Next List staff, CNN

(CNN) -  Skip Rizzo is a wizard of the virtual world, a clinical psychologist and anything but your average lab geek. He’s also a key combatant in the U.S. military’s battle against post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Rizzo's lab is a part of The University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies.

Watch CNN at 2 p.m. ET on January 27 to see a half-hour look inside Rizzo's world. Here's a primer on why he's a member of CNN's The Next List:

Why you might know him: Rizzo grabbed headlines back in 2006 with "Virtual Iraq," a virtual reality PTSD therapy for combat veterans. The treatment combines latest in gaming technology with a clinical approach to treating PTSD called prolonged exposure therapy. "Virtual Iraq" is used in more than 50 Veterans Affairs hospitals in the United States.

Why he matters: Despite advances in PTSD treatment, Rizzo believes America can do more for its troops. His current effort is called STRIVE - and it's designed to prevent PTSD by intervening before a war deployment. Funded in part by grants from both the Army and Navy research communities, the 30-chapter virtual reality program will use a fully immersive, “'Band of Brothers'-like” simulation to better prepare service members for the pressures of combat before their boots hit the ground. Research trials will begin at California’s Camp Pendleton this spring.

His philosophy: Rizzo says his calling is to "take care of the folks who put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedoms."

Oh, he's also into skull collecting: Rizzo is Harley-riding rugby player with a penchant for collecting skulls.

Why combat-related PTSD matters: One in 5 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD, according to George Washington University. That’s nearly 300,000 veterans as of October 2012. And the social and economic costs of PTSD are immense. First-year treatment alone costs the government $8,300 per person, or more than $2 billion so far. Suicides among active-duty military personnel averaged one per day in 2012. Veterans now account for 20% of suicides in the U.S., with the youngest (age 24 and younger) taking their lives at four times the rate of older veterans.

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Filed under: Gaming • Military • Science • Tech • The Next List • Thinkers • Video