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VR in Therapy: VR’s Positive Impact on Mental Health

Reydar’s Kaeli Burbidge looks at VR’s growing role in mental health therapy.

When we think of virtual reality I tend to think of gaming and fun virtual experiences. But the benefits of VR stretch far wider than just entertainment – Both virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) have been used in a range of industries like sport, surgery and even dogs in the military. And, one other area that is seeing an increased benefit is mental health.

Mental health continues to be a growing concern nationally, with mental illness estimated to be costing the UK economy up to £100billion a year with it being reported that 1 in 4 people in England will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year. In addition, it’s predicted that the impact of Covid-19 will see up to 10 million people needing mental health support as a direct consequence of the crisis. That’s almost 20% of the population of England needing additional support from an already burdened system.

Virtual reality has already been assisting treatments for mental illnesses, such as phobias, anxiety, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Digital apps are already widely being used by the NHS to support patient’s mental health and with the cost of technologies falling, it’s predicted that medical care and therapy will seek to further utilise digital technologies to include wider use of VR in mental health care.


VR therapy and its promising impact

There is currently a clinical trial taking place across NHS trusts throughout the UK, the largest of its kind, led by the University of Oxford and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, which sees participants with severe mental health disorders challenge their fears through VR therapy. Under the guidance of a virtual coach, the gameChange VR study aims to allow participants to complete everyday tasks that they might have otherwise felt overwhelmed by.

Dr Rob Dudley, consultant clinical psychology and lead for the gameChange VR study at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust explained: “By using virtual reality technology treatment people can experience feared places like a local shop, cafe or GP surgery in a virtual environment which feels real enough to allow people learn how to manage, and that they are safer than they feel.”

Although the trial is still in early stages and continuing over the course of 18 months, it is hoped that by users experiencing challenges in a realistic virtual environment, they will be able to manage their fears and anxieties in a controlled way without the added real-world stressors.

VR therapy vs. face-to-face therapy

OxfordVR is one of the partners of the gameChange VR study. Founded by Daniel Freeman, the team behind OxfordVR believe that an effective mental health treatment plan is an active one, where the patient can practice helpful behaviours in realistic situations, something that is not always possible during face-to-face therapy.

Daniel Freeman is a pioneer in the use of VR treatments for mental health patients after he first began working with VR in 2001. In 2017 he conducted research by reviewing 285 studies from a 25 year period that had used VR to treat mental health conditions. His review concluded that: “the results unequivocally confirm that VR is a proven modality for delivering rapid, lasting improvements for patients.”

This research was followed up by a trial in 2018 conducted by OxfordVR and University of Oxford, where Freeman is professor of Clinical Psychology. The trial saw 100 people with a prolonged fear of heights either receive VR therapy or no treatment. Those who received VR therapy experienced 5 treatment sessions guided by a virtual assistant, resulting in an average 68% reduction in their fear of heights.

Freeman explained: “Virtual reality is transforming psychological therapy in all sorts of areas…There are very few conditions VR can’t help because, in the end, every mental health problem is about dealing with a problem in the real world, and VR can produce that troubling situation for you.”

Oxford VR screenshot

The benefits of VR therapy

VR systems produce a controlled environment, with therapists able to control what a patient sees and hears. They are also able to make adjustments and provide a tailored approach to the individual needs of the patient. Guided virtually, patients experience a safe space to develop their emotional responses.

VR therapy offers an accessible solution to people seeking help for their mental health. While many can hit a stumbling block finding a therapist, or meeting a therapist face-to-face, VR allows the user to access therapists from home without wait times with systems even able to be used with mobile devices and smartphones.

Dr Albert “Skip” Rizzo, the Director of Medical Virtual Reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, spoke at the Psych Congress Elevate conference in 2020, stating that VR should be used as a tool in conjunction with traditional methods: “We’re not eliminating the need for well-trained clinicians,” he said. “In fact, what we’re really doing is giving clinicians tools to extend their skills. Technology doesn’t fix anyone. It’s a tool in the hands of a well-trained clinician.”

Where does VR therapy go from here?

When I first started investigating VR within therapy I was taken back by how much positive influence the technology had already impacted the industry. And like most industries, it’s not about replacing the current working methods, but instead, it’s about enhancing them and making life better.

With VR therapy being more cost-effective and easy to use, it’s looking to be a promising solution to the growing mental health crisis in the UK in 2021. Although more studies need to be completed, as evidence of its efficacy continues to rise, VR therapy will become more available and be used more widely.

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