Gone are the days of experts worrying that virtual reality could cause irreparable damage to the brain. In fact, psychological research has gone so far as to use VR to treat a wide range of psychological disorders. With 1 in 4 people at risk of needing mental health care at some point in their lifetime, the advent of being able to use virtual experiences to help patients through their problems is long-awaited.
While it is still a relatively new field that is still being tested, research on the use of VR for mental health so far has shown favorable results that suggest that psych-focused VR can be highly beneficial to patients, especially those with depression, anxiety, claustrophobia, addiction, eating disorders, or PTSD.
Using virtual reality to treat mental health is not a new concept; it’s been used in exposure therapy for years. As VR headsets become more commonplace, it’s even easier for therapists and patients alike to access mental health treatment options. This approach is still relatively new, but it has the potential to mitigate obstacles in-person therapists face by creating either an immersive computer-generated world in VR or an augmented reality (AR) experience that superimposes content over the user’s surroundings.
These VR and AR experiences can simulate a controlled version of reality designed to enhance therapeutic efforts and facilitate a discussion enhanced by specific interventions that allow the patient to freely express their emotional concerns in a way that the therapist can understand and support.
Virtual reality has been particularly valuable in treating PTSD, as it can allow for the use of exposure-based therapy (EBT) in a safe environment. EBT allows the patient to be immersed in an environment that triggers memories of the trauma in small but steadily growing increments. By using EBT in VR settings, the therapist has a high degree of control over everything the patient sees. It also allows for patients to be exposed to stimuli that would otherwise be difficult to access and doesn’t require the patient to imagine their experiences, as they will be able to see the simulation in front of them. Studies that have already been conducted speak to the effectiveness of VR EBT, but there are still ongoing studies to determine if it could be rolled out on a broader scale. To fully implement VR EBT as a common treatment method will require mental health clinicians to be trained in the use of this technology and any changes that may be needed adopt this potential treatment method.
People with depression usually are treated with a form of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in which a mental health professional works with the patient to teach mindfulness and give them problem-solving techniques that they can use to help themselves feel better. VR is a great alternative to this popular talk therapy option, as it gives therapists the chance to create interactive situations that teach patients to manage their thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is especially helpful when it comes to reactions to situations that trigger depressive episodes.
VR technology allows patients to practice facing different situations as a way of training them to change or alter their reactions from negative to positive. Using a virtual world to force patients to expose themselves to different situations allows them to engage in remote sessions from the privacy of their home without feeling any shame about their feelings while still benefiting from therapy.