How a Virtual Reality Tool Helps People in Recovery

For more than 50 years, Harmony has been the foundation for sustained recovery from addiction for thousands of people. Treatment methods have evolved quite substantially during those decades and Harmony continues to embrace innovation and new strategies to treat addiction and co-occurring mental health conditions.

Harmony’s chief clinical officer Dr. Annie Peters has built a mental health team that works with clients to address trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that frequently drive SUD. Her team has recently started to use virtual reality technology to help patients in the detox phase of treatment. The VR technology enables patients to use mindfulness exercises in a calming, virtual environment while undergoing the fairly stressful detoxification process. “It’s helping clients calm down and feel more comfortable and that’s exactly what we want them to do in detox,” explains Peters.

“Emotional regulation and psychological grounding are crucial in early recovery,” says detox counselor Carla Felts, “especially when clients are going through withdrawal.” The VR allows them to experience a relaxing environment like a beach or a forest in which they do meditation exercises that can counter any anxiety they may experience.

VR Addiction Recovery

“Learning mindfulness in a group setting can be intimidating for some clients at first,” says Felts. “In the VR, they can try it out by themselves. If it works for them, it can definitely become a springboard for patients to engage in more mindfulness meditation throughout their recovery process.”

The novel approach to treating mental health issues was developed by the National Mental Health Innovation Center (NMHIC) at the University of Colorado and is now being used at Harmony. So far, the feedback from clients has been overwhelmingly positive, says Felts. “In detox, clients are not necessarily able to go to a therapy room to practice meditation. At the same time, the environment in the detox room can be loud and activating. The VR gives them an opportunity to create a space for themselves even in this busy place.” Most clients like it so much, they come back and ask whether they can use it again after they transitioned from detox to residential treatment.


Matt Vogl co-founded the Innovation Center to “test new ways to make mental health services of all kinds more accessible to everyone,” as he explains in the Ted Talk above. “Technology has long been viewed as the enemy of mental health, but what if that is wrong? What if it can be part of the solution?”

“The brain processes a virtual image much like a real image, the resulting sense of presence essentially tricks your brain into thinking you’re actually there. In VR, you can meditate anywhere you want to,” says Vogl who has bipolar disorder.

Dr. Peters shares Vogl’s assessment. “It’s much easier to visualize a calming scene when it’s right in front of your eyes. Major stress-reducing skills are about engaging your senses. The more you engage your senses and body functions like breathing, the more helpful it is for the client. When someone is distressed, we want them to be able to soothe themselves and we want them to distract from emotional pain.”

The VR can do just that for most people, but it’s obviously important to get feedback from clients to find out how it worked for them. Not all modalities are appropriate for all clients. The more the treatment approach hones in on individual needs, the more effective it becomes.

Wider Approach to Use Technological Innovation for Mental Health

In order to explore new ways to make mental health services of all kinds more accessible, the National Mental Health Innovation Center has built what they call the Tech Innovation Network (TIN). It is a partnership between the NMHIC and various community, clinical, and technology partners. Deputy director Mimi McFaul, senior project manager Sarah Beary, and program manager Gwen Gaumond coordinate the partnership with Harmony.

“Harmony Foundation has shown an unusual interest in new technology and is open to exploring new research, says McFaul. “Harmony is our superstar site in the addiction treatment sector.”

The NMHIC basically functions as a broker between two sectors: trusted tech partners developing software and treatment modalities on one side and clinical and community sites like Harmony at the other end. “There are now over 100 TIN sites and 5–7 trusted tech partners who produce excellent content, sometimes under our advisement,” explains Gwen Gaumond. “We pass that on to the community sites to explore cutting-edge treatment during pilot or research projects.”

Harmony is an excellent partner because they have a lot of experience with mindfulness in addiction treatment and the capacity to use technological innovation effectively. This makes Harmony a valuable TIN site because “other addiction treatment partners don’t have the same level of expertise,” says Gaumond.

The NMHIC is very interested in any feedback Harmony can provide so the technology can be steadily improved and adjusted. “With VR, in particular, it’s difficult to gauge how immersive it really is for particular individuals,” says Sarah Beary. “Even with something as uncomplicated as mindfulness, many TIN sites come back with different ideas on how to use it. Then we can adjust it for that particular program.”

Research shows that lack of access is one of the root causes of the mental health crisis in America—a crisis directly linked to the addiction crisis because substance misuse is strongly correlated to mental health problems. More access to a variety of treatment modalities is urgently required.

For Harmony, the VR project has been very positive and Dr. Peters is already thinking about expanding the use of VR at Harmony. Program leadership is discussing how this technology may be integrated throughout the treatment experience at the Estes Park campus as well as how it could contribute to recovery support at the new Fort Collins Recovery Center. “Harmony’s latest partnerships with the medical community and technology innovators continue to expand our ability to successfully bring people into recovery,” adds CEO James Geckler. “With every year, we work towards new ways to address issues to individualize care and are encouraged by the strong outcomes we’re seeing as a result.”

Harmony Teams Up With Rocky Vista University to Improve Addiction Training

Rocky Vista Logo

In his groundbreaking report on addiction in America, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy suggested “a comprehensive approach” to address the substance misuse crisis in the United States including “improved access to evidence-based treatment services, integrated with mainstream healthcare, for those at risk for or affected by substance use disorders.“

Better integration with mainstream healthcare requires better addiction training for medical professionals—among other things. In a new partnership with Rocky Vista University, Harmony Foundation is now providing just that.

RVU was established in 2006 as the nation’s first private, for-profit health sciences university to offer a professional medical degree since 1910. RVU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine grants the degree of Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) and admitted its inaugural class of medical students at the Parker, Colorado campus in 2008.

Recently, RVU added a physician assistant program. The goal of the PA program is to support the development of “clinically competent, collaborative, and compassionate” physician assistants. One of the first students in that program is Adrianne Bryant who recently also benefitted from the trailblazing partnership with Harmony. She was able to learn quite a lot about the treatment of substance use disorder (SUD) during her rotation at Harmony.

Supervised by Harmony’s medical director, Christopher Reveley, MD, Bryant got a “well-rounded look at addiction treatment and what recovery is like,” as she puts it. “I had the opportunity to talk with the psychologist and multiple counselors. I was able to take part in group therapy and learned about managing meds and the detox process. I’m getting a really good overview of the whole program.”

It’s a modest but important beginning. Harmony aims to become an incubator for teaching and learning around the medical side of addiction. Dr. Reveley considers Harmony an ideal place for that kind of training. For many medical professionals, this “may very well be their only experience in addiction medicine before launching into their careers, regardless of whether they become MDs, DOs, or PAs,” he says. “Here at Harmony, we can offer a full spectrum of inpatient treatment. We’re treating all kinds of addiction problems, with all kinds of substances, and we have a fully qualified mental health staff.”

This kind of first-hand experience is often lacking in the medical field. Not many medical schools require or even offer it, despite the current addiction crisis in America. Dr. Reveley can speak from experience. Years ago, when he went to medical school himself, he didn’t have any addiction training at all. Then, when he became interested in recovery and the treatment of addiction after years as an anesthesiologist, he started to look for an addiction medicine fellowship. There were fewer than 50 on offer in the entire United States—in 2015!

“It’s really admirable that RVU has acknowledged the importance of addiction treatment,” says Reveley. “Primary care doctors, in particular, are in the front lines of recognizing addiction in patients and getting them into treatment. So it’s so important for someone like Adrianne Bryant, who might be working in a primary care clinic to know what addiction looks like.”

Bryant agrees: “I don’t think people have a real good sense what drug-seeking behavior looks like, so we may not recognize it all the time,” she says. “This rotation is helping me in that regard because I see people in recovery who genuinely try to get better. Sitting in on counseling sessions, witnessing patients taking an honest look at their lives, I get a better sense of what people struggling with addiction are like, what they were like in active addiction, and what recovery looks like.”

Dr. Reveley hopes that collaborations like the RVU-Harmony partnership will get more medical professionals interested in addiction treatment. Thanks to her Harmony rotation, Ms. Bryant will certainly be in a better position to recognize SUD in her patients and suggest evidence-based therapy for them. That’s a big step forward. “A lot of substance misuse doesn’t result in treatment because doctors simply don’t ask about it,” says Reveley.

Addiction is a complex biopsychosocial disease requiring comprehensive treatment in an integrated care environment. Many agencies can help make that treatment a reality. In the case of the new partnership, Rocky Vista was also aided by the Area Health Education Center (AHEC) which helped with the placement of students. The AHEC Program works with regional offices to build state-wide network capacity in Colorado, strengthening academic-community linkages in four core mission areas: health careers and workforce diversity, health professions student education, health professions continuing education and public health and community education.

Harmony Receives $100K Grant for Local Addiction Needs

Harmony Foundation, a Colorado-based addiction treatment center, announced today that it has received a $100,000 Daniels Fund grant to to support new initiatives in long-term recovery services. These comprehensive efforts will serve to improve access to care with an additional location, providing a non-residential level of care, and exploring new aftercare approaches to meet individual needs.

Harmony Foundation will provide continuing support to alumni and families by creating more robust recovery services and engagement opportunities for those seeking long-term sustained recovery, including:

Opening a new location along the I-25 corridor for expanded aftercare services

Aftercare services are an effective contributor to success for individuals who have completed the primary residential program. Ultimately as these facilities are self-supporting they will provide full-service assessments and an Intensive Outpatient Program open to the greater community.

Providing telephonic and online recovery coaching

Harmony Foundation’s clinical case managers will use technology to help them more accurately monitor the recovery of alumni through telephonic and online recovery coaching. Harmony Foundation will construct a state-of-the-art facility to serve the large number of program alumni and their families who currently reside in this northern Colorado location where currently there are a dearth of resources. This provides discharging clients with accountability and support from a familiar Harmony professional on their early recovery journey.

Expanding chapter groups

Alumni chapter groups provide a regular place to reinforce the tools provided by Harmony Foundation for healthy long-term sobriety as well as continued education through guest speakers. The grant will help subsidize current chapter groups but also expand the number of chapter groups geographically.

“As a nonprofit we have the ability to put mission first, a critical advantage in addressing the disease of addiction because we focus on the disease from the patient perspective,” stated Jim Geckler, CEO of Harmony Foundation. “The Daniels Fund helps us work to continue that mission in both reach and breadth.”

About Harmony Foundation

Harmony Foundation is a nonprofit alcohol and drug addiction recovery program that serves in a collaborative and respectful treatment environment. Harmony promotes physical, emotional and spiritual healing, empowering our clients to embark upon the lifelong journey of recovery. Visit HarmonyFoundationInc.com to learn more.

About the Daniels Fund

The Daniels Fund, established by cable television pioneer Bill Daniels, is a private charitable foundation dedicated to making life better for the people of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming through its grants program, scholarship program, and ethics initiative. Visit DanielsFund.org to learn more.