How virtual reality is being used to deliver mental health care
The potential of virtual reality (VR) to help deliver mental health care has long been known.
But until recently the technology has been very expensive — and not particularly good.
That's all changed with the arrival of cheaper and far more sophisticated devices like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
As it's currently Mental Health Week, it's worth looking at how the potential of VR is starting to be realised.
How is VR already being used?
Technologist Greg Wadley from the University of Melbourne said the main use for VR has been in the area of exposure therapy for phobias and anxieties.
For instance, ever since flight simulators were invented, they have been used to help people overcome their fear of flying.
The technology has improved drastically over the past 20 years, however. Commercially available VR headsets can now put people in front of a virtual crowd, allowing them to deal with their fear of public speaking in a controlled environment.
Dr Wadley said the better technology doesn't just make simulations more visually realistic. It can also make programs more behaviourally accurate.
"So you can imagine the audience responding to things that you're saying in a realistic way."
In addition, researchers from the University of Oxford are helping people with paranoia deal with difficult social situations such as encountering strangers in crowded lifts and trains.
"Patients who fully tested out their fears in virtual reality were later much less distressed even when in a real-world situation, such as going to the local shop," their study found.
How will it be used next?
VR is often used to simulate real-world environments. But it can also be used to help visualise abstract concepts.
Dr Wadley's computer science department at the University of Melbourne is currently working with a youth mental health clinic called Orygen to help develop VR treatments for young people with psychosis and depression.
Current treatments for these conditions involve trying to help people understand how their own minds work. An example of this is teaching them about "mindfulness".
The idea of mindfulness is to view your thoughts as being in some sense external to you, so that you can observe them appearing and disappearing, and so deal with them better.
Dr Wadley said VR means mindfulness did not need to be explained in words.
"You can actually visualise your thoughts and emotions as objects that you have control over, that you can manipulate or deal with in some way," he said.
Does VR replace seeing a psychologist?
Dr Wadley said the aim was not to replace psychologists.
"I don't think anyone envisages the end of face-to-face contact," he said.
The technology that Dr Wadley is developing is designed to be used with the guidance of professionals.
But he said VR could help people get around two of the main limitations of in-person therapy: cost and accessibility.
The comparison can be made with services like Lifeline which has been providing crisis support to Australians over the phone since 1963, but that hasn't negated the need for clinics.
What other technological revolutions are underway?
Dr Wadley said until now people have thought of using devices like smartphones as a means of delivering mental health treatments.
But he said the next cutting-edge idea is that phones could be used to find out when treatment is actually needed.
After all, your phone knows when you're at work; how active you are; what you're googling; and when you're isolating yourself. According to Dr Wadley, it can even analyse your voice and capture aspects of your emotional state.
"There are incredible privacy issues of course. But potentially the phone can become a real-time diagnostic tool."