Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Almost half (45%) of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. (1) With the recent ‘Are you ok’ campaign and the current global pandemic, people’s awareness on mental health issues is high.
New and emerging immersive technologies, such as virtual reality (VR), can now play a significant role in supporting therapies and treating mental illnesses. We’ve compiled a few examples to demonstrate:
Using virtual reality to treat PTSD
It’s been proven that people who suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorders), fears and phobias can benefit from VR treatments such as immersive exposure therapy (also known as systematic desensitisation). Placing a patient in a virtual simulation and progressively exposing them to stimuli has the capacity to teach their brain how to deal with their fears, and ultimately be relieved of their symptoms.
An American doctor, Dr Brennan Spiegel, ran a VR program called “Bravemind” to treat war veterans who suffer from PTSD and said “on average the treatment works in over two-thirds of patients and the benefits are durable.”(1)
Using virtual reality to treat phobias and fears
VR can produce scenarios that are therapeutically helpful if used in the right way, but are virtually impossible to recreate in real life. For instance, the treatment of agoraphobia (fear of heights) or the treatment of arachnophobia (fear of spiders) are much more plausible to treat through exposure therapy in virtual reality. This is due to the ability to maintain full control over the experience, including the severity of the scenario and the speed at which severity increases. Furthermore, it is much easier and safer to create digital heights or spiders than to take a patient and expose them to these stimuli in a real environment.
Despite the strong evidence that real life exposure therapy is one of the most effective ways to treat phobias, only about a third of those who suffer from them actually seek treatment. Researchers found that this is due to the fear of facing their phobias in real life being far too great for many to overcome. However, many of these people who did not seek treatment were willing to face their fears in virtual reality. (3)
Using virtual reality for telehealth
Psychological distress is significantly higher in remote areas, where 7 million Australians live (2). For some, access to face-to-face counselling is difficult, if not impossible. Delivering telehealth via virtual reality technologies has the capacity to bridge the physical gap and help those who require therapy on an ongoing basis, by enabling the possibility to meet a counsellor in a virtual environment. According to Dr Shiva Pedram at Associate Research Fellow, University of Wollongong, VR-based therapy was proven to be more effective than video or telephone counselling sessions. (4)
Virtual Reality offers huge potential to many industries, and the health industry is no exception. Whilst the ability to simulate the unsimulatable is usually employed by gaming to give otherworldly experiences, it is also incredibly beneficial to health professionals seeking to treat mental illnesses in a manner that is both safe and effective.
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2) Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2018. Australia’s health 2018. Australia’s health series no. 16. AUS 221. Canberra: AIHW.
3) A. Garcia-Palacios, C. Botella, H. Hoffman, and S. Fabregat.CyberPsychology & Behavior.Oct 2007.722-724. http://doi.org/10.1089/cpb.2007.9962