As a society we’re getting very good at treating the body’s ailments. Our life expectancy has skyrocketed; we have eradicated diseases that once destroyed entire populations. We’ve made incredible progress treating AIDS, we’ve cured many kinds of cancer, and we’re getting ever closer to therapies that will stop aging. We can make a stopped heart beat again, and reattached an entire limb that’s been severed.
But when it comes to mental health, our track record isn’t so great.
Society has struggled to accept and understand mental health issues. Stigma stops people from seeking treatment, and the complexity and uniqueness of each individual’s mental makeup means that even when they do seek treatment, it can be a rocky road. Our methodology is often “try a bunch and see what sticks,” which can be frustrating when dealing with physical pain — but is debilitating when your mental health is at stake.
Luckily, there are people out there trying to help.
Virtual reality is often hailed as an empathy machine because of its ability to make users feel completely immersed in an experience, letting them force connections in their brains similar to memories of real events. This strength is an incredible boom to therapeutic uses, from treatments for anxiety to depression.
Below we list four exciting ways virtual reality is changing the face of mental health treatment; and this is only the beginning.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
It has taken us many decades to admit that PTSD is a very real challenge, which claims the lives of veterans every year. Now researchers all around the world are exploring the use of VR to help sufferers attain some peace. There are many examples of this great work; one such is Bravemind. Operating out of the Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT), part of the University of Southern California (USC), Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo’s team has developed a clinical VR immersive environment and SimCoach, a virtual agent who looks, sounds, and acts like the soldiers’ commanding officer.
A recent study, published in February in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open, has found that VR therapy reduces depressive symptoms by boosting feelings of self-compassion and alleviating self-criticism. The researchers developed an 8-minute scenario in which 15 patients practised delivering compassion in one virtual body and then experienced receiving it from themselves in another virtual body. A few as four repetitions of the therapy led to significantly decreased symptoms of depression. The VR Therapy and Counselling Centre in Grand Rapids offers similar treatment to the public, and their services are covered by insurance.
Exposure therapy is nothing new. You take someone with, say, a fear of flying, and you get them to talk through what about planes scares them, ask them to examine and challenge their fear. Then you get them to sit in an airplane seat, knowing it isn’t real. Then you get them to sit in a simulated plane, which shakes and moves as it “takes off” and “lands.” Eventually you graduate to a real plane, giving yourself the chance to fail in a situation where the consequences won’t be too dire (not, say, a vacation to Cuba, or a work trip).
The problem with this therapy is two-fold: it’s expensive, and it’s often impractical. It’s easy to get someone to sit on a plane, but what about someone with arachnophobia? How do you get a hundred spiders to crawl all over a person?
Okay, that’s an extreme example, but therapists really are using virtual reality to help people with phobias such as arachnophobia. The progression of virtual exposure therapy is the same as it would be offline, but the cost is dramatically reduced, and it allows for exposure to situations that wouldn’t have been possible before, in a completely safe environment. And because of the way VR can trick your brain into feeling like a simulated event is real, this treatment is actually more effective than traditional methods, where it was often obvious that the situations were simulated.
You’re standing in the middle of a room full of strangers. Your mouth is dry; your heart is pounding. Someone to your left says something; you didn’t catch a word of it. The pressure in your chest begins to mount, and as your breathing grows shallow you realize you’re on the verge of a panic attack. You flee the room. Maybe you’ll try to go to work again tomorrow.
Social anxiety has many forms, and many levels of severity. Those with the worst cases struggle to maintain jobs and relationships, often retreating to their homes and mimicking the symptoms of agoraphobia.
Cognitive behaviour therapy is hugely effective at treating social anxiety, which affects roughly 5 million Americans every year. Therapy involves three stages: in the first patients are introduced to a stressor, in the second the risk of disapproval is augmented, and in the final stage therapists teaching techniques to cope with that disapproval. This treatment process is being used at the Virtual Reality Medical Centre in Los Angeles.