Immersive technology helping to fill the mental health gap

Health care funding is a contentious issue world wide and mental health care is no better as it is widely reported that the demand for mental health care far exceeds the resources and funding available. Mental health disorders are on the rise in every country around the world and there are enormous unmet needs such as access to treatment, poor outcomes, high cost of care, low patient engagement and shortage of skilled clinicians. Mental health difficulty has a direct impact on the economy through increased absenteeism and reduced productivity. Depression, anxiety and bipolar are quite common and have lasting effects on individuals, families and the community as a whole.

So we ask the question can technology fill in the void in helping people to receive the mental health care they need? With the emergence of immersive technologies such as VR (Virtual Reality) we seek to find the answer. There have been VR applications in mental health in recent years that might just provide the answer.

VR has an extraordinary ability to create powerful simulations of the scenarios in which psychological difficulties might occur. Oxford VR Founded in 2017 builds on two decades of research by Professor Daniel Freeman looking at VR’s potential to revolutionise the way in which people experience psychological therapy. In VR therapy, individuals put on a headset and enter VR simulations. They navigate through an environment to complete tasks that are designed to trigger their symptoms. Oxford VR’s first clinical trial for fear of heights shows how automated VR therapy can produce large clinical benefits. Results achieved were better than expected demonstrating success in reducing patients fears by an average of nearly 68%.

Another VR program geared for tackling the mental health problem is Psious developed in the US. This is a VR tool for mental health professionals, providing them with animated and live environment that they can use in their clinical practises. Some of the mental health difficulties treated are anxiety and phobias.

In Asia a psychological therapy program using VR to tackle social distancing was launched in 2019. This was a collaboration between Chinese university of Hong Kong and Oxford VR. The program is called “Yes I can” and the aim is to help people feel safer and more confident by taking them through an environment and have them complete a series of tasks that reflect everyday scenarios. This is achieved with the guidance of a virtual coach

VR-enabled therapy has the potential to deliver rapid, lasting improvements in mental health. Multiple clinical trials show how results are at least as good as, if not better than, face-to-face therapy. The great thing about VR is that the learning transfers to the real world as the body and the mind behave as if it were real, meaning the lessons learned are transferable to the real world. According to Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University: “VR isn’t just capable of helping us with what seem like more straightforward phobias and anxiety-disorders. It can also help with depression, schizophrenia, paranoia.”

Virtual reality is a welcomed addition to existing methods of treatment. While we are still a long way from being able to provide timely mental health treatment to everyone who needs it, VR-enabled therapy is a ground-breaking and promising new approach.

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