With one in four of us expected to experience a mental health issue at anyone time, it has become essential to increase access to treatment. But it is a challenge to do so. Therapists require extensive training, and coaching patients in everyday situations is the most efficient form of therapy, which is time-consuming and therefore costly.
A solution may provided by delivering psychological therapies in virtual reality (VR). Here are three ways VR could transform treatment for mental health.
1. "Coaching for,"In situ
In the very situations they find most challenging, the most successful therapeutic interventions help people change the way they think, react, and behave. This could be anything from getting on a crowded bus, to just leaving the house, to going to a social event.
When we're in the same physical or mental state as we were when the memory initially formed, we remember information best. I know this as learning dependent on the state. For example, if we want someone to remember a technique that will help reduce their anxiety while shopping for food during the therapy session, it is usually best to actually visit a supermarket to train and practice the technique.
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In mental health services, such active "in situ" coaching can rarely happen because of factors such as cost and time. This is where help can be provided by VR.
VR environments create immersive simulations of environments in the actual world, allowing you to walk around and communicate as if it were real with the environment. Together with a virtual or real-life therapist, you can enter the situations you usually find difficult, and learn psychological techniques to overcome your difficulties.
Crucially, although we know that the VR environment is just a simulation, we react, both psychologically and physiologically, as we would in the corresponding real world environment. As a result, any learning carried out in VR transfers to the actual world.
After a single VR coaching session, fear of real-world social situations halved in one study of 30 patients with serious paranoid beliefs. For a range of other experiences, such as fears of height and social anxiety, we have seen similar findings.
VR is not only more practical, but individuals are usually more willing to enter virtual versions of the circumstances they find anxiety-provoking because they know it's just a simulation. It's also simpler to try things out repeatedly that are too frightening or perhaps too embarrassing to try in the actual world.
For each individual, VR scenarios may also graded in difficulty or even personalized. In a VR study on the treatment of fear of heights at the University of Oxford, participants started in a ten-storey building's virtual atrium and could then choose which floor to go to. As they became more confident, the idea was to practice on the lower, less scary floors, and work their way up.
VR also made it possible for the researchers to make some scenarios more fun for participants, such as having tasks where a kitten was or bubbles had to pop. This added flexibility in how respondents could confront their fear may be one reason their decreases in height fear exceeded those seen in conventional exposure therapy.
VR's versatility also means that we can adapt it to help treat a variety of mental health issues. For many other phobias, such as spiders, and other disorders such as PTSD, social anxiety, depression, eating disorders, psychosis, and addiction, we have created VR treatments.
3. The automation
The most important benefit of VR therapies, perhaps, is that we can automate them. This implies that a virtual coach can be with you in VR, who explains the therapy and teaches you the psychological techniques to try out.
Our team, for instance, has developed a virtual coach named Nic, who is for mental health treatment in our ongoing research into VR. Nic offers users encouragement and gives them ideas about psychological techniques to try during therapy.
A 3D image used for VR mental health therapy by the virtual coach, Nic.
Virtual coaches help guide therapy, like Nic. Game Change/ VR from Oxford, Author supplied (No reuse)
Without a therapist actually needing to be present at every VR session, virtual coaches like Nic can work like a therapist. Instead, alongside the virtual coach, a graduate psychologist or peer supporter (such as someone who has lived through a similar experience) can lead the sessions with the user, offering support and guidance.
VR therapy can help ensure that more individuals can access the treatment they may need, without delay, because there are many more graduate psychologists and peer supporters available than highly trained therapists. Also, for the same reason, VR treatment is likely to be more affordable.
Continuous improvements to VR hardware mean that the potential use of this technology in mental health services to treat a variety of conditions soon is becoming increasingly affordable and workable. While it would never replace therapists, the number of individuals able to access therapy could improve.
The article was written by Virtual Reality, Augmented and Artificial Intelligence 2021 specialist Amit Caesar.
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