Virtual Reality for Mental Health

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A pair of virtual hands looking at an anxiety graph in a virtual environment

Mental health has become one of society’s biggest issues with around one in seven people now taking antidepressants. Whether this is caused by events such as pandemics, wars and economic difficulties, social media reporting of such events or simply a greater awareness and tendency to self-diagnose, there is a tsunami of potentially ill people in need of therapy. There is clearly a shortage of resources available to treat the commonest conditions – anxiety and depression. It can take days or even weeks to get a GP appointment and, typically, 6 months or more to obtain talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural
therapy (CBT).

One possible solution is the use of virtual reality (VR) to treat these common psychological conditions. There is good evidence of beneficial effects of virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) for the treatment of specific anxieties, whereby the patient is exposed to highly realistic simulations of the anxiety-inducing scenarios, which are progressively intensified in order for the patient to develop tolerance to them. For example, if someone is anxious about social interactions, a virtual environment, featuring increasing numbers of people to interact with, can be created. This can involve simulated environments such as a street, train station or bus. Similarly, VR can be used to provide CBT to treat anxiety and depression, with virtual avatars acting as therapists, providing guidance for the completion of various therapeutic tasks and activities. These uses of VR have been shown to be clinically as effective as traditional methods, well-accepted by patients, and free of side-effects. There are signs that, in UK, these novel therapeutic techniques are beginning to be offered to patients. Last month, for example, Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust introduced virtual reality treatment to its Wellbeing service as part of the treatments it offers patients suffering from phobias ranging from needles, flying and spiders to agoraphobia, heights and claustrophobia. Empathetic Media, the sister company of Empathetic Media Health, worked with the University of Westminster on a recent VR program called UniVRse, aimed at helping students suffering from social anxiety to practice in a variety of university-based scenarios (inside a lecture hall or a seminar group, for example) in a safe, virtual private space.

There is clearly a long way to go before VR is systematically adopted but recent advances in headset technology, combined with higher fidelity and more realistic virtual environments, are likely to accelerate this trend.

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