How Can VR Support Mental Health?
When we think of VR, we think of computer games and entertainment, but did you know that VR also has an increasingly important role to play in the world of science and mental health?
Virtual Reality is a computer-generated 3D simulation of an environment, which you can interact with by wearing a specialist headset. This allows you to become fully immersed in a virtual world. VR may mainly be associated with entertainment but as a technology it was first used by the military for simulation and training. And from the 1990s in psychology it has been used successfully to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Since then, VR has branched out into the world of psychology, medicine and education, bringing a breadth of opportunity to support mental health. Here are some ways VR can support mental health.
The immersive aspect of VR means that real-life experiences can be replicated digitally. Despite being digital, they can still have a similar effect and impact. Exposure therapy is when someone is triggered in a safe and controlled environment.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is when disturbing memories, thoughts and emotions relating to a past experience are brought to the surface. The most common example of PTSD is when war veterans return to mundane life.
Bravemind, a PTSD treatment system created by Dr Albert ‘Skip’ Rizzo, in partnership with the U.S Army, Virtually Better and the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative technology (ICT) was created to aid returning veterans in processing and dealing with wartime trauma. As quoted by Dr Rizzo, “We use the best technology to train soldiers for war; we should use the best technology to fix the… mess afterwards,”. Patients are given headsets to wear and rifles to hold as they virtually return to warzones; there are even simulations set up to mimic engine rumbles, gunshot and smoke which filled the treatment rooms. As unnerving as this sounds, it has shown to be successful in reducing panic attacks, anxiety and improving sleep.
“If you overcome something in V.R., you overcome it in real life,” — Daniel Freeman, Professor of clinical psychiatry at Oxford University.
Overcoming long-term phobias is not an easy feat. Sometimes, even the thought of confronting a phobia is enough to trigger a panic response. Exposure therapy VR apps like oVRcome make it possible for people to overcome phobias and social anxiety in the privacy of their own homes. Equipped with a headset, the app exposes you to your phobia in a safe and controlled way and teaches you how to manage anxiety. It monitors your progress and provides calming tools to keep intrusive thoughts at bay.
Apps like oVRcome study our fight or flight response. By confronting a phobia again and again, we are able to rewire the brain until the perceived threat no longer has a strong hold over us.
GameChange is a new psychological virtual reality therapy for people with psychosis who are anxious about everyday social situations. The app was developed by a team of researchers including Daniel Freeman, Professor of clinical psychiatry at Oxford University who runs virtual reality therapies at 10 public clinics across England, and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. In the automated app, a virtual coach guides patients through the programme. This therapy can be supported by a range of staff: peer support workers, assistant psychologists and CBT therapists.
Results from the largest ever clinical trial of VR for mental health showed that the patients who benefited most were those who found it hardest to leave the house and those with higher levels of psychiatric symptoms such as severe anxiety, depression, delusions and hallucinations.
As VR permeates more households around the world, it can be possible to offer therapies at a distance which is more easily accessible for people. For example, classic CBT can take place on the virtual couch of your therapist or you can virtually have a doctor’s appointment to describe your symptoms if this does not require immediate medical attention.
It may also increase access to important coping systems for better mental health; such as the opportunity to exercise in the virtual world, attend a yoga class, or guided meditation surrounded by magical VR landscapes. With such flexibility with time and place, it may be easier to benefit from these sides of therapy.
The future of VR may still be unknown but the examples above show that it has the potential to play an integral role in mental health; acting as a gateway to access the subconscious, process emotions and manage trigger responses. However, we need to be aware of potential risks. According to experts like Andrew Sherrill, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta worries that as VR becomes more mainstream and accessible, people seeking treatment might try out a programme for themselves without the support of a therapist to manage any triggers of trauma. Either way, we are interested to see how AR and VR will evolve to support mental health in the wider healthcare landscape.
Image by Christine Sandu
New York Times: Virtual Reality Therapy plunges patients back into trauma. June, 2021.
Forbes: How Virtual reality can help the mental health crisis.
Science Focus: Phobias, paranoia and PTSD: Why virtual reality therapy is the frontier of mental health treatment. February, 2021.