Treating Mental Health With Virtual Reality

Mental health issues affect many of us in our daily lives. Whether it’s from stress or anxiety, depression, or some other form of mental health, it’s something that affects most people in one way or another. It’s estimated that as many as one in five people in the U.S. have a diagnosable mental health condition and while many disorders have specialized treatments that don’t require drugs, not all are that easy to treat. Sometimes doctors have to over-prescribe medication before they get the right result, and sometimes these drugs can have disturbing side effects.

So instead, medical professionals turned to virtual reality (VR) for assistance. VR has been used for decades as a helpful tool in the medical world to deliver therapy in a safe and controlled environment. But, due to its cost and certain technology limitations, it’s not something that is widely on offer.  However, with the introduction of affordable VR headsets onto the market, that could all be about to change and could be seeing a new wave of telemedicine coming our way.  This could include remote teletherapy in which VR is used as a supplementary tool as well as in-clinic VR therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of treatment currently used in mental health patients.  The number of sessions a patient attends can vary depending on the disorder and its severity.  Typically the sessions will involve helping the patient identify and alter the negative thought patterns and feelings that lead to destructive beliefs and behaviors.  More often than not an avoidance behavior stems from the anxiety. For example, someone who fears how they look in public may simply avoid any social interaction, leading them to become isolated and depressed. CBT is a way of overcoming these limitations and finding a way to cope with any negativity. It is often used alongside exposure therapy (ET) and together they help the patient overcome their fears.  VR is now being used a s a medium of delivery for ET and CBT and if it takes off, could really revolutionize the way mental health patients receive treatment.

Since the 1990’s, VR has been used to successfully treat patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  It’s used regularly to treat soldiers and war veterans suffering from the condition and in 2014 the Canadian Government spent $34,000 on two VR applications specifically for this purpose. The application in question is called Bravemind and works by delivering sensations associated with explosions and firefights.  It even has an integrated scent machine that can emit smells like gunpowder or diesel fuel at specific times to increase immersion.  There are many other types of PTSD – not just those associated with the military.  Various phobias and anxiety disorders have been treated using VR therapy.  Some companies that are currently offering this type of treatment include the Virtual Reality Medical Center that aims to conquer people’s fear of flying, and Virtually Better that also seeks to treat fears such as flying, public speaking, or heights.

VR can also be used as a stress reliever and to assist meditation methods. One company, DEEP, uses a unique meditative VR game to relax the user as they explore a beautiful underwater world. It’s completely unique because the game is controlled through breathing (biofeedback). Guided Meditation VR is probably the most well-known relaxation app.  It was created by Cubicle Ninjas and offers four relaxing environments in which the user can immerse into during their mediation session.  The company is now looking to extend their services even further by enabling their experiences to be accessed by those with limited mobility.

All of these VR applications can help immensely when it comes to treating those suffering from mental health disorders. But, it’s still early days in terms of development, and may still be some time before all of these services are available to the mainstream.  However, even small progress is still progress and as long as we continue to support the development of these apps we’ll begin to see more of these options available to those who need them.

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