How is Virtual Reality Being Used for Mental Health Care?

Using Virtual Reality in the healthcare industry

VR (Virtual Reality) technology has been around for over 20 years. Over that time, it has evolved immensely and become useful in applications beyond gaming, which it is most commonly associated with. The mental health community has known that VR has potential for treating patients for years, but the high cost made it unavailable.

As with all sorts of today’s technologies, VR has become inexpensive, making it an affordable and viable solution for delivering mental health care. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are two devices that make VR something worth looking at for mental health therapies.

Is VR currently used?

Virtual Reality is indeed currently being used in the mental health arena. According to Dr. Greg Wadley, University of Melbourne technologist, VR is used for effectively treating anxiety and phobias through exposure therapy. A good example is flight simulators, which are being used to help people overcome the fear of flying.

Dr. Wadley said that better VR technology isn’t only effective for creating a visually realistic atmosphere, it also uses updated programming to make the programs behaviorally accurate. People who fear public speaking can put on the VR headset and be placed in front of a virtual, realistic-looking crowd. Here they can experience “speaking in public” within the controlled VR environment. VR technology is so realistic that the simulated crowd can actually respond to what the “speaker” is saying in a realistic manner.

The University of Oxford has been helping people suffering with paranoia using VR. Through the VR environment, patients encounter social situations like being in a crowded lift, train, or other similar situations. According to the Oxford study, patients reported feeling less stressed in real-world situations after going through VR therapy.

What’s next for VR?

Virtual Reality isn’t only for simulating real-world settings. It’s also capable of helping people visualise abstract concepts. According to Dr. Wadley, this application is beneficial to young people who suffer with depression and psychosis. The idea is based upon being able to visualise abstract concepts, like mindfulness for example.

Mindfulness is an internal process, but VR technology helps people to observe it in an external, literally visualised, sense. Doing so helps patients better understand their own minds, in turn helping them develop better coping skills. Instead of explaining mindfulness through words, patients experience it in a controlled VR environment where they learn what they can control, manipulate, and manage. This application can extend to everyday situations over time.


Is VR intended to replace psychologists?

Dr. Wadley says the technology was not created to replace psychologists. He states, “I don’t think anyone envisages the end of face-to-face contact.” The idea behind VR is to use it in conjunction with psychological therapies and under the supervision of professionals. However, when possible, VR reduces costs and provides increased accessibility to in-person therapies. A good analogy is Lifeline, a telephone crisis support system for Australians that has been around since 1963; using Lifeline hasn’t invalidated the need for clinics.

What new innovations in VR are being pursued?

Currently, practitioners consider smartphones to be a good way to deliver mental health therapy treatments. Cutting-edge VR technology could be taken further to help people find out if they need treatments.

For example, your smartphone knows a lot about you. It knows when you’re home, when you’re working, what you’re doing online, what you’re Googling, and when you’re alone or isolated. Dr. Wadley believes your smartphone can be used further to analyse your voice and determine your emotional state with the right programming technology.

The only potential issue Dr. Wadley mentions regarding VR technology and its wide use on smartphones is that of privacy. But privacy issues can be addressed and eliminated, so the potential for smartphones to become a real-time diagnostic tools is high.

While no technology can take the place of hands-on mental health care, VR is proving to be an effective way tool in the mental health arena.