Virtual Reality the Next Big Step in Mental Health Treatment

Gayle Kurtzer-Meyers

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“VR isn’t just capable of helping us with what seem like more straightforward phobias and anxiety disorders. It can also help with depression, schizophrenia, paranoia.”
Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at the Department of Psychiatry, Oxford University.

With the pandemic creating a significant spike in mental health issues, it is impossible to sweep this issue under the rug any longer. The percentage of people experiencing anxiety and depression was currently 40% when it was 11% only a year earlier.

The number of adults in the U.S. suffering from worry, stress, and their impact on wellbeing rose from 32% earlier in March to 53% by July.

Many of my close friends have become victims of this surge in mental health issues. Be it from losing their jobs, health anxiety, or having to spend excessive time in isolation — they can no longer handle these issues’ adverse effects on their own. We can use virtual reality to address this dilemma.

Previous methods of dealing with mental health-related concerns are insufficient to accommodate this rise. That’s why it’s important to delve further into the use of virtual reality and avatars to treat mental health issues. These methods are not new to the psychiatry world — but their use is sparse.

When thinking of mental health treatments, we think talk therapies and medication, but virtual reality (VR) is the solution we aren’t focusing on — and this needs to change.

VR surpasses an obstacle that humans can’t overcome.

While VR has been around since 1997, several cost and technology limitations make it inaccessible in the global arena. However, as advancements continue in VR headsets — there’s now an expanse of people who can afford treatment via VR.

An article from 2019 states that 7.7 million people in the U.S. will experience PTSD. While there are various procedures to treat PTSD — it has been found that exposure therapy benefits more people than medication and psychotherapy. VR is one of the best mediums of using exposure therapy.

Studies claim that the use of VR includes aspects that were limited by the human element — exposure therapy being one of them. Immersing a patient in a recreation of the traumatic incident — with visuals and sound — was difficult and complicated when done by psychiatrists.

VR makes treatment easier for patients as well. They no longer have to revisit the memories that cause them trauma — VR helps create the scene for them.

Researchers involved in VR therapy believe that using this method to help PTSD patients — especially veterans — has led to fewer relapses, lower panic attacks, and even allows patients to sleep better — often without the need for medication.

Furthermore, VR is now increasingly used to treat anxiety and specific phobias. Many companies have been developing apps that offer “therapeutic VR,” including meditation and calming experiences.

One company, Mimerse, is currently coming up with therapeutic VR to combat phobias such as public speaking and traveling on an airplane.

VR treatments with headsets, gloves, and chairs — or haptic feedback systems — make the experience all the more real for the user. Patients can see and feel the environment. With avatars, they can move around and interact with the ground, which helps them overcome phobias.

This treatment works to relieve the pain, anxiety, and stressors that emerge when patients encounter a specific space with repeated, controlled exposure. When it works alongside therapy, such as a face-to-face session with a psychologist, patients can walk through scary situations with their therapist’s guiding voice by their side.

Therapists can now ask their patients to “jump off a cliff” using VR — a previously impossible therapy element. They can also control how intense or integrative an experience is by focusing on their patients’ reactions, making it a safe and controllable procedure.

Other studies have found that patients with schizophrenia and autism benefit from VR by getting to engage in positive social interactions. When patients are in these environments, it can distract from their mental disorders and learn that the dangerous situations they are afraid of are not as threatening as they previously perceived them to be.

Another company, Limbix, is expanding the use of VR for other mental health issues as well. They have created VR content that focuses on treating claustrophobia, teenage depression, and even alcohol addiction.

VR to diagnose mental health problems

There’s more to VR than treating mental health problems. Recent research has found that it also helps reach a more reliable diagnosis for Alzheimer’s, ADHD, and schizophrenia. By placing patients in a situation and comparing their performance with others, researchers believe that they can more easily identify these disorders’ symptoms than the traditional interview-based test.

Alzheimer’s affects a person’s ability to navigate. Previously, psychiatrists could not take their patients to a specific location and ask them to find their way back. However, by using VR, they can ask patients to find their way through virtual landscapes. One study shows that this method can present a 93% accuracy rate compared to only 64% and 79% accuracy of the pen and paper test.

VR in the times of corona

As I mentioned before, the effects of the coronavirus have spread from more than just physical implications. The mental health crisis during the pandemic will stay long after the virus comes to an end. Depression and anxiety from lost income, the death of a loved one, and limited access to supporting structures will prevail — until and unless we find viable treatments.

Many people cannot access therapy because they don’t have the time, resources, or money to attend regular sessions. Face-to-face therapy during the coronavirus has become difficult, and with it, many people have lost the only support they had to cope with mental health issues.

Virtual reality can address this issue by being an affordable, accessible platform. Certain apps, such as Joyable, have been providing people with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)-based activities that they can perform. By incorporating these activities with VR, they can create a scenario of a virtual therapist.

An artificial intelligence-based therapist that uses feedback such as heart rate, respiration, and other responses to determine the VR activities for patients can become a less expensive and widely accessible form of support for many who are currently suffering alone. Of course, AI and VR can’t fully replace a human trained in reading reactions and vital signs — but the support it can potentially provide is worthy of exploration.

VR treatments’ capacity to deliver on a large scale depends mainly on the avatars that are in development. For instance, while a therapist could accompany a patient to a crowded setting to treat their social anxiety, an avatar made by qualified psychiatrists, researchers, and developers can easily replace this setting for numerous patients suffering from a similar problem.

This method addresses the lack of skilled personnel, the waiting lists, and the anxiety patients have when working with a real person.

These avatars imitate a skilled therapist based on what has worked in real-life therapy. With a therapist integrated into VR systems, it delivers faster results for a larger number of people.

Studies show that while 20–30% of patients drop out of in-person therapy and relapse back into the problems they were facing. However, VR has demonstrated impressive results, with patients saying it is an enjoyable experience that helps them escape their anxiety and distress while also helping them overcome specific phobias.

Social isolation has had vast repercussions worldwide. Using VR as an escape to virtually interact with the outside world, experience nature and other human beings can be extremely helpful in countering the cabin fever that many are going through.

The use of VR extends far beyond at-home use. Because of the mobility and accessibility that it provides, patients in hospitals and rehabilitation centers can benefit. Oxford’s VR developments include combatting social anxiety and distress when out in public. This fear has arisen in many people who have not been able to leave their homes for months.

With VR, patients can navigate through public situations and feel a sense of control over their anxiety. Over Oxford’s half-hour-long, weekly sessions, patients can walk through a set of tasks that make them face their stress, knowing that they are in a safe and controllable setting.

This treatment has proven to reduce social anxiety over time and help patients be less reactive to their triggers. They feel an increased sense of confidence in going out in reality, knowing that they have been able to carry these tasks out successfully in virtual reality.

We must evolve as the world evolves

Traditional therapies are, no doubt, imperative to the well-being of patients suffering from mental health issues. However, to address these issues on a global scale, virtual reality could be the answer. With constant advancements and evidence-based treatments entering the VR world, we can support and treat mental health issues accessible and affordable to everyone.

“With VR-enabled therapy, there is an upfront investment to create the treatment; however, there will be large cost-savings when used by many people.”
Daniel Freeman

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I am a Licensed Community Association Manager for the State of Florida and a published author. My top articles are about Florida RE, property management, and the many beautiful venues and activities available in the Sunshine State. Thank you for reading my work and joining me on the journey.

Kissimmee, FL
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