June is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Month, which aims to raise the public’s understanding of the oftentimes debilitating condition. It’s estimated that about one in three people who experience severe trauma develop PTSD. Veterans, first responders, and survivors of abuse or serious accidents are more prone to PTSD than others, according to the National Health Service.

At UCF, researchers are working to better understand PTSD, its effects and ways to treat it. Here is a roundup of just some of that work.

Expanding Peer Support and Innovative Treatment

UCF RESTORES is a leading nonprofit clinical research center and trauma treatment clinic that uses a dynamic approach to PTSD treatment. By combining exposure therapy using emerging technology like virtual reality, and individual and group therapy sessions, 76% of first responders no longer meeting the diagnostic criteria for PTSD following three weeks of intensive treatment.

UCF RESTORES is expanding its nationally recognized peer support and suicide prevention training – called REACT – for first responders across Central Florida. With a $1.4 million First Responder Regional Support Grant from the Florida Department of Children and Families, UCF RESTORES will train over 300 first responders on mental health and suicide prevention, develop and train a network of clinicians in how to best support first responders, and hold summits with first responder agencies to collaboratively develop behavioral health services for first responders and their families.

Researchers have expanded REACT to support hospital nurses, thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Pabst Steinmetz Foundation Arts and Wellness Innovation Award. An interdisciplinary team of researchers will train nurses to create autobiographical comics about their experiences, adapt REACT workshop materials for acute care nurses and their autobiographical comics scenarios, and use the comics in cultural competency training for mental health specialists who assist nurses.

Virtual Reality for Healing

Research out of UCF is studying how exposure therapy, with the use of virtual reality, can help patients of intensive-care experiences overcome PTSD, which many survivors of intensive-care hospital stays often develop. Led by Assistant Professor Brian Peach in UCF’s College of Nursing, the research will examine how exposure therapy that features virtual reality with real sounds and smells from the patients’ intensive-care experience can help patients reprocess their traumatic experience in the presence of a therapist. This method — exposure therapy using virtual reality — is used by UCF RESTORES and has proven to be highly successful in treating first responders, military personnel and veterans. Recruitment for this research is ongoing.

Help for the Helpers

Uzbekistan native and mental health counselor, Gulnora Hundley ’04MA ’08PhD, an associate lecturer in the Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology, provides free group therapy sessions to mental health professionals treating those impacted by the Ukraine-Russia conflict. More than 170 participants have tuned in virtually from Poland, Ukraine and other places nearby since she started offering the service in March 2022. Hundley is helping mental health professionals because they need their own safe space, too, with resources for coping and processing trauma. Hundley says participants have talked about grief, loss and being separated from loved ones — some of whom have husbands fighting in the conflict, and some who know those who have been killed. Hundley uses a psychotherapy treatment called EMDR Group Traumatic Episode Protocol to help participants alleviate stress associated with their traumatic memories.

Dogs and Their Healing Power for Veterans

After a 21-year career as a clinical social worker and mental health officer in the U.S. Air Force, Associate Professor of Social Work James Whitworth now works to understand the efficacy of dog therapy programs for veterans. Veterans can face a multitude of mental health challenges, from depression and anxiety, to PTSD, traumatic brain injury or sexual trauma, and training therapy dogs — through his research — has been found to improve these symptoms, as well as hypervigilance, stress and anger. Whitworth’s research is supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Defense, and he’s evaluated similar programs for the Florida Department of Veterans. One of his current studies identifies and examines the matching strategies used to pair veterans with the best service dog that suits their needs. By understanding the value of service dogs and related programs, he aspires to build better support for veterans.

A Silver Lining

While much research seeks to understand the negative side effects of traumatic events, such as PTSD, highly stressful events also can lead to positive psychological changes. That’s what Associate Professor of Counselor Education Melissa Zeligman studies. Posttraumatic growth, or PTG, is the phenomenon where survivors of highly stressful and traumatic events gain a greater appreciation for life, build stronger relationships with their loved ones or higher power, or recognize new strengths within themselves after such events. Zeligman researches ways to facilitate PTG in clients, such as hope, optimism, gratitude, meaning making, connecting with social support groups and spirituality and religion, as applicable to the client. Zeligman also conducts research out of the Community Counseling and Research Center at UCF, examining how clients’ adverse childhood experiences impact their growth throughout counseling. The Community Counseling and Research Center provides services to the public.