Can VR help cure the mental health epidemic?

Virtual reality is already being used to treat trauma and raise awareness of mental health

The world is on the verge of a mental health crisis. According to the World Health Organisation, the number of people diagnosed with a neurological condition has grown massively over the past few decades. For example, there were around 416 million people suffering from depression/anxiety in 1990, but by 2013 this statistic had grown to 615 million.

With so many people being diagnosed with mental health conditions, there’s an increasing strain on health institutions around the world. Treatment can cost countries billions, and cutbacks are all too common considering today’s economic challenges. As well as a lack of resources, some people are too afraid to seek help because of stereotypes. In fact, the Counselling Directory claims that only 230 of 300 people diagnosed with a mental health condition will go to see a specialist.

While typical resources are sparse, some individuals and organisations are turning to technology for answers. Virtual reality, in particular, is being used to treat and spread awareness of mental illness.

New treatments

Virtual-reality treatments are still a new phenomenon in the world of healthcare, and many of the concepts out there are in the early stages. The Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California is one of the organisations interested in using virtual reality (VR) to treat mental illness. Bravemind is one of the university’s creations. It’s a clinical VR-based exposure therapy tool to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other neurological conditions.

Exposure therapy has been used for years to help people deal with PTSD and other stress-related illnesses, but relying on them to recreate their traumatic experiences is challenging. Often, patients are unwilling or unable to do this, but VR helps to break down these walls. With Bravemind, clinicians can gradually immerse their patients in environments similar to past upsetting events. The tool lets doctors control multi-sensory stimuli while monitoring the emotional responses of patients through advanced brain imaging.

Dr Skip Rizzo, director for medical virtual reality at the Institute, led the development of the Bravemind application. While VR is creating big waves in the gaming and entertainment industries, he believes that this technology will begin to mature and have a major impact in healthcare. He says VR can be used as an effective way to treat mental health conditions such as phobias, PTSD, depression and pain management.

  (Above: Skip Rizzo (R) and the Bravemind Virtual Reality system. Credit: Branimir Kvartuc)

(Above: Skip Rizzo (R) and the Bravemind Virtual Reality system. Credit: Branimir Kvartuc)

“Regardless of virtual reality’s impact on gaming and entertainment, the clinical use of VR for treating mental and physical health conditions is going to be one of the big areas where the technology is here to stay. VR experiences are well matched to the needs of various treatment approaches, and research has already shown added value for addressing phobias, PTSD, depression, pain management, eating disorders, and for the rehabilitation of cognitive and physical function following a stroke or other form of brain injury,” he tells me.

“While previously hamstrung by costs, complexity and clinician unfamiliarity with the equipment needed to use VR clinically, VR technology is charging forward in the consumer marketplace with new low-cost, high-fidelity and usable product offerings that will likely drive wider-scale adoption.

“This will result in a scenario where it is probable that, in the next few years, a VR device will be like a toaster – although you may not use it every day, every household will have one. That expected growth in market penetration will likely support accelerated uptake in the healthcare domain as the general public will have more exposure to VR and will come to see the value of the unique experiences that VR can create, beyond the world of digital games.”

Facing symptoms head-on

While VR mental health treatments have a long way to go, that’s not to say that healthcare organisations aren’t already using the technology in real-life scenarios. The Behavioral Associates, an outpatient therapy office based in New York, has been using VR technologies for a number of years to treat a number of phobias, depression and anxiety disorders. More recently, the clinic has begun providing VR solutions for mindfulness practice, primarily using the Samsung Gear 360 camera.

"The advent of virtual reality was huge for the mental health world"

Brieanna Scolaro, who is a trained social worker and director of community relations at the centre, is a huge believer in virtual reality being used in mental health treatment. She explains that this technology is making it easier for victims to face their symptoms and fears head-on, and is optimistic that it’s becoming more accessible.

“The advent of virtual reality was huge for the mental health world. Previously, a patient had to either sit in the office and imagine the feared situation or be immersed in the experience, such as getting on a plane. Now patients can navigate these scenarios and learn to manage their reactions, both cognitive and physical, from the safety of the office,” she says.

“Virtual reality should be considered the standard for any sort of exposure work. It’s too effective not to utilise, and the research has clearly backed it. When the technology first came out, the price made it inaccessible to many. Now any clinician can get set up for the price of a Samsung phone and a Gear VR headset, about $600 if that.”

  (Credit: Behavioral Associates)

(Credit: Behavioral Associates)

Of course, that’s not to say that VR treatments aren’t without their challenges. Scolaro adds that some practitioners don’t feel comfortable using new techniques. And there are cases when patients may question the effectiveness of new equipment. She says these are issues that caregivers need to tackle now.

“The struggle, however, is two-part. On one side, practitioners aren’t learning about these techniques in schools and may not feel comfortable learning a new procedure. On the patient side, people may be sceptical about how a piece of equipment can be helpful to their treatment,” she says.

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“The last part is where my role comes in – educating the general public about the uses of VR therapy and the effectiveness. It’s my belief that, by using virtual reality, we can provide mental health services to more individuals by navigating around mental health stigma.

“Many people do not believe in getting mental health services, and if they do, they most certainly don’t want to talk about it. But what if you go to VR training? So, in addition to being an extremely effective treatment (90%+ success rate), we can navigate around the stigma and increase accessibility.”

Helping people to understand

As well as challenges around treatment and care for people with mental health conditions, there can also be a lack of understanding and empathy. Visualise, a VR studio based in London, is looking to change this. The company worked with Jane Gauntlett who created a project called In My Shoes: Dancing with Myself, which aims to spread the awareness of neurological conditions.

The solution uses a mixture of 360-degree video and 3D audio-production techniques to give the viewer an immersive first-person perspective of what it’s like to live with a neurological condition on a daily basis. Henry Stuart, CEO of the company, says:  “One of the key areas VR can help mental health, outside of treatment, is in empathy VR – helping people to understand issues and conditions that we may be far removed from. We used 360 VR technology to film and put you in the shoes of Jane Gauntlett, a lady with epilepsy.

 

  (Above:  In My Shoes: Dancing with Myself. Credit: Visualise)

(Above: In My Shoes: Dancing with Myself. Credit: Visualise)

"You hear her voice in her head. She progresses towards and epileptic fit and you black out."

“In this experience, you’re at the table in Jane’s body at a restaurant. Her friends come in and talk to her, and you hear her voice in her head. She progresses towards an epileptic fit and you black out. The resulting time after Jane wakes up and how everyone in the room treats her is really powerful and certainty has been helping people to understand epilepsy better.

“I can only see there being more experiences to help mental health. In the shorter term, these will be driven by charities and healthcare companies trying to drive empathy and awareness. In the longer term, these will be with real treatments. In short, VR has a huge part to play in future mental health treatment.”

Virtual reality is an area of technology that’s gathered masses of interest over the years. Often, there’s the assumption it’s only really relevant in gaming and entertainment contexts, but that couldn’t be more wrong. Healthcare organisations, medics and academics are increasingly showing an interest in using VR to treat mental illness. Although the solutions are in the early stages, they’re always improving, and there’s no doubt that we’ll see more applications come to fruition in the foreseeable future.

Lead image credit: Knight Centre for Journalism, University of Austin

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Nicholas Fearn @nicholasgfearn

6 Feb 2017