Using technology to improve our lives is one of the defining characteristics of being a modern human. As Virtual Reality (VR) technology moves ever closer to ubiquity, it is unsurprising that it has started to find its way into psychological healthcare.
In the UK, around one in four of us will experience difficulties with mental health at some point in our lives. Around one in eight adults with mental health problems are currently receiving treatment, with the most common mental health treatment reported to be medication.
With the introduction of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) initiative in 2008, the NHS made some headway in making a greater variety of evidence-based therapies available to a larger section of the population. Nonetheless, the provision of specialist therapies still has a way to go.
Therapists have routinely used simulation of environments and triggers to treat things such as anxiety disorders, particularly when real world scenarios are impractical. For example, CBT-based exposure therapies addressing a fear of flying might simulate an aircraft cabin experience using something as simple as a rumble chair, surround sound system, and a large curved screen. VR offers a much deeper level of immersion at a potentially lower cost. Fully immersive technologies are however very much still in their infancy.
VR is increasingly being employed to help us meditate, exercise, and relieve stress. Clinics specialising in VR therapies are springing up regularly, particularly in the US. Anecdotally at least, the results look promising; many clinicians report successfully using VR to treat anxiety disorders in particular, and their patients report lasting improvements to their symptoms. A handful of studies also demonstrate VR’s efficacy in treating specific phobias such as fear of spiders or flying, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Without more robust studies or longer-term data however, there is no way of knowing whether the newer and emerging therapeutic models are truly effective. High quality clinical trials over significant periods of time are required and, until then, uptake of VR in mental health provision will necessarily be slow.
A more ‘traditional’ use of VR
Alongside immersive and exposure therapies, current technologies also allow for the possibility of clinicians and patients, each represented by their own avatar, meeting in a virtual therapy room.
Virtual environments could one day be inhabited by artificially intelligent assistant therapists, designed to support both clinician and patient. They may one day even be populated by entirely virtual therapists, doing away with the need for a human therapist altogether. For now at least, VR therapy requires a qualified human clinician to be present, either in the room or remotely.
So, is VR Therapy the Future of Mental Health?
VR’s unique ability to conjure up ordinarily impossible scenarios provides endless opportunities in healthcare settings.
Daniel Freeman, (Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford) and his colleagues studied the use of immersive VR technologies as applied to the assessment, theory, or treatment of adult mental health disorders. They reported their findings as “highly encouraging for the future of VR to mental health.”
“VR allows us to try things that are not easily practical in the real world. That means it could potentially generate the kind of results that even a course of standard treatment could not produce.”
It could. But why hasn’t it yet? In part, this is an economical issue. Advances in VR hardware tend to be fuelled by markets other than healthcare. The big investment comes from companies like Facebook, HTC, and Intel. Nevertheless, these markets can drive down the cost of tech, ultimately making VR more accessible. But lower cost hardware is only one facet of the equation.
For any immersive VR experience to be successful, the digital worlds that developers create must feel authentic. This is not cheap. The subsequent rigorous testing and validating required to safely roll out these therapeutic products can also be an expensive business. Significant investment is needed for mental healthcare to maximise the potential benefits of VR technology.
Perhaps once investment in innovative approaches to diagnosing and treating mental health problems becomes more established, the returns will better society in ways more valuable than improved ease of access to services or economic benefits alone.