8 minute read

Can VR help with a therapy shortage in mental health treatment?

The question of whether virtual reality can help with a deficit in therapy for mental health treatment has been circling in my mind for some time. As many people may know, quite a lot of governments in Europe lowered or removed subsidies for mental health treatment for its citizens. Which is what initially brought to the idea of whether virtual reality and gaming can help with offering therapy. I’ve explored this in some other posts, how gaming can help those with Autism, how VR and gaming can help combat trauma, and how gaming can help those battling cancer.

The most recent impetuous to write another piece about this subject is that I came across 3 different news stories in a single week discussing VR and gaming, and therapy. One was on the Dutch evening news, about how PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is being treated with VR. Another was on the BBC morning news about VR therapy for those afflicted with phobia’s, such as acrophobia. And lastly in an article in the Dutch Newspaper NRC, which was an article about a game called Hellbalde, which explored the experiences of a young Celtic woman who suffers from severe trauma due to a Viking raid.

What all of these show, is that the move into VR and gaming therapy is slowly gaining ground in traditional popular media. Both have been around for at least the last 25 years, but have been predominantly niche and very expensive. With gaming become more prevalent in our daily lives, and VR technology decreasing in price, slowly, these options and opening up to every-day individuals.

Examples are of how VR is particularly effective in treating PTSD, with methods such as exposure therapy. Where the patient is immersed in a harmless, virtually represented environment to the traumatic stimulus so that it can help reduce the response of fear in them.

Other examples are of VR therapies helping stroke patients regain some muscle control through virtual representations of working limbs. And with people suffering from body dysmorphia, and having them create and observe, almost, photo-realistic avatar representations of themselves.

 

The possibilities for VR and its uses are really only just beginning.

VR & “Artificial” Therapy

Immersing individuals in virtual environments is especially useful when treating environmental phobias, such as fear of heights, fear of flying, anxiety with public speaking or other social environments, and so forth. This is of special interest because VR can actually augment traditional CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy. By placing patients into situations that require them to alter their emotions, behaviors, and thoughts.

Creating these environments is the first step to having VR therapy supplement traditional therapy. The initial investment is fairly large, but with so many countries in Europe, the USA, etc…, struggling to address mental health issues, this might be the right step to solving some of them.

As VR therapy is still in its infancy as a widely recognized option, the initial stages of it offering an alternative to drug treatment are very alluring. As medication takes years to research and develop, and the eventual product can often be debilitatingly expensive for those requiring it. VR Therapy, by its nature, can be an inexpensive long-term alternative. But only with certain mental health issues, such as the aforementioned phobias and anxieties. With the continuing research into PTSD, it may also offer alternatives to drug treatments needed in this area.

 

The other supplemental area for VR therapy is within the telemedicine sector. Due to its nature of being immersive and personal, the effects of therapy can be greatly increased when using VR, rather than with traditional video teleconferencing. As the technology for photo-realistic representations and augmented reality experiences continue, patients who are unable or incapable of reaching therapist, can remain at home and receive treatment there. You may think, well what about lesser developed nations? My response is that you should probably have another look at these nations and look at the statistics of how many have internet, mobile technology, and how many even use virtual, augmented reality technology within education already.

Is VR right for all mental health issues?

The next question you will invariably be asking is whether VR therapy is right for all mental issues? Initially, it is best to consider using it with qualified therapists administering it. It should really only be seen as a tool that professionals can use in addition to what they would use normally. At least for now.

In the future, and the very near future undoubtedly, VR therapy may be possible without a therapist present. Artificial Intelligence is rushing ahead with a blinding speed. Before we know it, we will have fully virtual therapists present. But until then, the use of VR therapy should be determined by the type of mental health issue, and the level of treatment required.

As we’ve mentioned, phobias are some of the easier ones to use VR with. Treating a fear of flying or heights can be very effective in a VR environment. As it’s fairly inexpensive to recreate an airplane or a high building, then physically placing the person there. This is equally true for a fear of public speaking. These are also the first that will most likely be replaced with non-supervised, AI-based VR therapies. As the individuals themselves are able to easily place themselves in these situations and follow the instructions and exercises surrounding the treatment for these anxieties.

When treating anxieties, such as social anxiety, one method is through gaming, another is with VR. The simulated environments allow a safe space to practice and interact in a social manner. One technique is through role or body-swapping with a virtual therapist. The patient in effect speaks to a virtual person, explaining their social anxiety, and when they are done, they swap places, becoming the therapist, and listen to themselves explaining their anxieties. They are able then to observe and experience from an external position their own anxieties verbalized. Though this is only an initial therapy point, it would be advisable to move continue with a professional (or an advanced AI in the future?).

For PTSD, it is still recommended to have a qualified person guiding the treatment of a patient, when using VR. Of special note, when treating PTSD, the practice of EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, can be greatly improved with the help of virtual reality. As the EMDR essentially taxes the memory recall with eye movement, thereby lessening the effects of the traumatic memory. VR is almost tailored made for this method, as its immersive space allows for a very effective execution of EMDR. Especially as the VR simulation can take place in an overall, real, safe environment. And the patient can return to a calm, recognizable space.

Being in a calm space is also of use for those suffering from stress, and extreme distress. VR therapy is also moving into the meditative and mindfulness space. With companies creating simulations where stressed-out working professionals can go to. Calm environments which they can explore with ease, and be surrounded by relaxing sights and sounds. Or they can have personal guided meditations, without the need of a guide, for those that don’t want to go somewhere for this experience, or for those where closing your eyes doesn’t quite work.

 

The options for treatment and therapy are becoming enormous, and very soon they may well become endless.

Conclusion – The Future

As Artificial Intelligence becomes more powerful we will start seeing a version where AI will have emotion sense capabilities. Where intelligent machines can detect our emotions, judge our tone of voice and offer effective feedback and correct treatments.

On top of that, AI’s of the future will most likely integrate with our various (mobile) technologies, to interact, analyze and offer us more holistic and personalized treatments. Essentially using the technology, we use to learn about us as individuals:

 

These artificial intelligence will be with us whenever we need them, keeping us company, supporting us, and making us feel secure and cared for in an increasingly complex and erratic world.” - Source

 

 

The overall thought I want to leave you with is that VR therapy offers the opportunity to supplement mental health care with inexpensive repeatable treatments, and an immersive experience for many that offer a greater sense of presence and trust. It may not be possible with all mental problems, yet. But as long as we take these first steps, one day in the future, everyone can reap the benefits of effective personalized virtual treatment.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æStranger.com, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

Please do Share if you found it helpful and know of someone who would it find it helpful as well.

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