Using virtual reality to battle mental health

🕙 4 min read


On Tuesday of last week was World Mental Health Awareness Day, you probably noticed as social platforms were covered with support messages and people sharing their stories.

Mental health is growing problem with 1 in 4 people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem at least once every year. That is massive. It’s putting a strain on public services, a strain on families and ultimately leading to deteriorating health of the country.

This is a topic close to my heart. Many people I love dearly suffer from mental health issues and I myself have had on and off had bouts of depression. In my younger years, I had two periods of therapy when things were at their worst, but not everyone is lucky enough to go to a uni where these services are available and the cost of a private therapist is shit loads.

So how do we take on a growing problem when faced with dwindling public funding for mental health? Well, we can look to technology.

Virtual reality is one field showing progress in trying new approaches to therapy. Whilst we never had a go at VR therapy when I was studying psychology at uni, I want to share some of the projects pushing to solve the rising mental health crisis.


A reminder:

Virtual reality (VR); is a computer technology that uses virtual reality headsets, to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user’s physical presence in a virtual or imaginary environment.


1/ VR for PTSD

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a condition often associated with war or highly violent and traumatic situations. In fact, my Grandad has suffered with PTSD since his time in the military. The simple explanation of PTSD, is that an incident occurs which is highly arousing and traumatic; then due to this arousal and trauma, the memory is encoded in a way which means it sticks in the conscious and is not processed correctly. This can mean even the smallest resemblance the initial trauma can trigger a psychological and physiological response. You never know when or where the threat will come from.

Researcher are using VR to conduct a form of immersion therapy; immersion therapy works by helping patients confront a fear. However, with PTSD, the trauma will in reality probably never be confronted in the real world again which can limit treatment options. Using VR, researchers can recreate this experience in a virtual world so they can take patients back to the trauma. In this safe space, patients can be exposed to, process and discuss their feeling whilst presented with the trauma.

Scientific studies are proving this treatment can work and far more rapidly than psychoactive drug treatments alone. They are also developing the treatment for serving military to reduce the likelihood to PTSD occurring. Read about one Marine’s story here or the clinical research here.



2/ VR for troubled teens leaving care

This one is a little more secret. At a tech meetup event around 3 months ago, I met a woman who was developing VR to directly help the lack of follow-on social care in the UK. The focus is teenagers who have been in social care but are leaving to move into their first rented tenancy.

After troubled home lives, and for some years in care, these teens can come with a load of undeserved baggage. This can make renting and keeping their first place really tricky. As an 18+ teen, especially if you’re male, you are no longer the top priority on the help list. With resources finite, there can be a sudden drop-off in support when leaving social care. This can leave teens at risk of homelessness and a downward spiral.

The role of VR being developed in this case is to support teens by filling the gap in support networks. In a government-funded project, VR is being developed to allow for codesigned therapy spaces which will be experienced through Oculus Rift headsets. This creates spaces in the virtual world where teens can connect with others in the same situation and receive group therapy where the resource may not stretch to get the group physically together in the real world. Pretty cool huh?



3/ VR for depression

A big factor in depression is not treating yourself in any way how you would treat others. You may be the kindest, most caring person to those around you but when it comes to yourself you’re mean, cruel and unforgiving.

Whilst VR one-on-one and group therapy products are rising as a new patient-practitioner relationship, there are also some more creative approaches to treating depression with VR.

Researchers at University College London are using VR to encourage those suffering from depression to be kinder to themselves by using situational avatars. The way the study worked was that the user placed on the headset and was in a VR body adult body, looking out as if it was their own. They were then immersed in scenarios where the user must show compassion to another avatar e.g. a crying child. After soothing the child, the scenario was reversed. The user then experienced being the child and seeing the adults (themselves) show compassion. Ultimately this helps the patient learn to show self-compassion by putting them in both roles.

Researchers found that just 3 repetition sessions could reduce depression severity, self-criticism and have a long-term lasting effect. How sick is that?

Read the clinical study here. 



What does this all mean?


In reality, our health system is pretty fucked. America’s health system is majorly fucked.

As big slow moving organisations try to fix the problems caused by a changing map of societies health, perhaps more focus can be put on integrating tech into these solutions. The beauty of forms of tech like VR is that once the software is created (whilst that part can be a bit spenny), it can be rolled out across the majority of the population who have smartphones with super low-cost headsets.


What do you think? Should we welcome these alternative approaches to mental health therapy?


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