If you build it, they will come.

This isn’t the saying that comes to mind when thinking of treatment facilities dedicated to anxiety, trauma and PTSD. But it certainly has been the case for a one-of-a-kind clinical research center at UCF dedicated to treating those areas for combat veterans and military personnel.

Deborah Beidel joined UCF faculty in 2007. Four years later, the Pegasus professor of psychology and medical education founded UCF RESTORES, which has changed hundreds of lives since its inception. Through virtual reality, patients are confronted with triggers. They see bombs detonate and smell smoke or gunfire. It’s like being on the front lines in Iraq or Afghanistan, but instead patients are on UCF’s campus.

“How do you get over a fear of driving? You have to drive,” says Beidel, who is also the director of UCF RESTORES. That’s the mentality applied in the intensive outpatient format she and her staff use at the clinic.

Since it opened, the clinic has provided no-cost therapy to more than 300 veterans and active duty military and more recently, worked with first responders and victims of mass shootings. Their work has earned national praise and support, including receiving part of the largest alumni gift and being named the winner of the Spring 2018 Marchioli Collective Impact Innovation Award for “creating community impacts through partnerships.”

In the clinic, patients are exposed to realistic, individualized, virtual-reality therapy five days a week for three consecutive weeks — a format avoided in the past for its intensity. It’s a stark contrast from what’s the norm in PTSD therapy. Combined with daily group-therapy sessions on anger management, depression, and socialization, the results show speak for themselves. Sixty-six percent of the first 100 patients treated at UCF RESTORES no longer had symptoms of PTSD after the three-week treatment, and six months later, only one patient had relapsed. Only 2 percent of patients dropped out of therapy.

“We have military personnel seeking us out from not only all-around Florida, but all over the U.S.,” says Beidel. “One veteran literally used his last dollar to buy a plane ticket to come to Florida. He walked to our clinic from the airport. If that doesn’t show we’re providing a needed service, I don’t know what would.”

Aware of the need for expanding and improving services, Beidel partnered with Clint Bowers, a fellow Pegasus professor and national expert in the area of training science, to expand offerings for first responders, including educational workshops on peer support training.

On June 12, 2016, UCF RESTORES received a phone call from the Orlando Fire Department: “We need you down here right now.” It was just a few hours after a gunman walked into the Pulse nightclub, killing 49 people and injuring another 53. Throughout the next week, UCF RESTORES conducted debriefings for the general community and for first responders, and it established a treatment program for first responders and mass shooting victims. And since that time, it has helped 100 first responders and dozens of victims of traumatic events, including survivors of Pulse, Las Vegas and Parkland, FL.

Although started as a research and treatment program for veterans, UCF RESTORES is committed to continuing their efforts to provide services not only to veterans, active duty personnel and first responders, but also to all Florida citizens affected by traumatic events.

Beidel says she is proud to be supplying the workforce with individuals who have this unique skill set. That’s why she makes it a point to recruit veterans to the doctoral program, as they are committed to working in the VA after they graduate and giving back to their fellow veterans. And other doctoral students witness the impact of this work firsthand and often seek positions where they can serve veterans and first responders after graduation.

“We want to give people their lives back,” says Beidel. “The trauma memory won’t go away, but it shouldn’t dictate every aspect of their life. And we will be here until no one else needs us.”

Nominations for the Fall 2018 Marchioli Collective Impact Innovation Award are due September 21. This award goes to an individual or small team each fall and spring semester through 2019 for their innovative initiatives, programs or projects tied to the Collective Impact Strategic Plan that can be implemented across the university.