It’s been a wild past two years for us all. After experiencing the tumults of the pandemic, unforeseen market instability and a seemingly endless chain of global and civil unrest, the prevalence of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions has reached a staggering high. Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) has weighed in on the dangers of our mounting mental health crisis, with one scientific brief reporting a 25% increase in mental health issues since COVID-19 first hit the world.
The social isolation resulting from the pandemic was one of the biggest challenges our modern society has faced in the last century — causing unprecedented constraints on people’s relationships, work lives, communities and overall mental wellbeing. As a result, many people turned to virtual resources for work, regular communication and even medical care. It’s also for this very reason that 92% of businesses reportedly believe the pandemic has accelerated the development of metaverse technologies.
As we exit the final stages of the pandemic and look towards our first normal summer of the decade, it seems fitting that this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week would be loneliness. In honour of this year’s event, let’s take a look at how developing technologies are looking to improve mental health treatment, decrease the effects of loneliness and provide greater access to care — especially as we see metaverse technologies increase in popularisation.
Using XR technology to combat loneliness
When we couldn’t physically meet with our colleagues, friends or family members during the pandemic, video conferencing helped us stay connected — even if it didn’t exactly replace the sensation of real-life interactions. In keeping with this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week, more immersive technologies have already been suggested by experts as an even better remedy for those experiencing social isolation and loneliness. The spatial nature of VR means that interactions inside more immersive games and metaverse platforms feel much more like being around people in the real world.
During the pandemic, VR even found an unexpected new group of users — seniors. MyndVR has already worked with hundreds of senior living communities across the United States, seeing a significant surge in popularity within the last two years. Chris Brickler, co-founder of MyndVR, has remarked on the company’s reimagining from a youth-based gaming culture to a “very safe, secure and senior-friendly platform”. Moreover, he commented on the platform’s success during COVID: “We’re just super excited about providing this service to so many older people that are, you know, sometimes lonely, combating isolation.”
A recent study from Frontiers in Psychology has also concluded that XR technology and more immersive gaming experiences have positively affected users — particularly by “modelling the relationships between involvement, wellbeing, depression, self-esteem and social connectedness”. The study determined that, while there is a risk that VR can supplant in-person involvement, healthy social interactions within a VR environment still “benefit players by satisfying essential needs of belonging and connecting with others.”
Anna Bailie, a PhD candidate at the University of York, specialises in researching mental health cultures on social media — and she believes the future of how the metaverse will impact our mental health will improve, rather than harm our ability to connect with others. According to Bailie: “The metaverse has been sold as a place for community, sociality, making friends and maintaining relationships.” Furthermore, she believes that: “there’s no reason that can’t happen when we already see it on social media platforms like Instagram and Reddit, where people find communities which they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.”
Improvements through immersive care
As we’ve previously covered, a recent peer-reviewed study from Oxford University concluded that patients who tried VR-based therapy saw a 38% reduction in anxiety or avoidant symptoms over the course of a six-week treatment period. According to another study, patients suffering from paranoia saw a decrease in their phobias — even after undergoing just one VR session. The immersive nature of VR is now understood as a way for us to trick our brain into thinking it is reacting to a more realistic encounter — an advent that can see patients develop healthier and more effective coping strategies.
Dr. Daria Kuss, lead of the Cyberpsychology Research Group at Nottingham Trent University, has touted VR technology as an effective therapy tool: “We know that particular psychology formats, notably virtual reality exposure therapy, can be fantastic tools to help individuals affected by a variety of phobias, depression, psychosis, addiction, eating disorders — as well as post-traumatic stress disorder — by gradually exposing them to the triggering, feared, or trauma-producing stimulus in a safe space (like the virtual environment).”
University College London (UCL) has been behind a series of clinical trials using VR to treat mental health conditions. The university has partnered with Tend VR to bring mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) — a type of face-to-face therapy that has been proven highly effective — into a virtual setting. According to Rebecca Gould, Honorary Clinical Psychologist in the Division of Psychiatry at UCL, “virtual reality-based mindfulness represents an innovative and novel approach to addressing this challenge.”
UCL also revealed a specialised VR intervention program that would substitute face-to-face therapy for depression, with the objective of helping patients increase their ability to exhibit self-compassion. Using a virtual room, patients are shown two virtual avatars — both a child and an adult. In the first segment, they enter the room as the adult — with the task of comforting the child until their stress is decreased. In the next segment, they get to play as the child — this time being comforted by the script of the adult. The compassionate script inside the module zeroes in on three key themes: validating experience, redirecting attention and activating a positive memory.
A growing body of scientific research now also supports the idea that certain psychedelics, when administered by a therapist, can support a range of mental health conditions — including depression, PTSD, addiction and various types of anxiety. Now, health experts are even looking to replicate the benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy in the metaverse. Emotional Intelligence (EI) Ventures, a growing startup, is harnessing the power of VR to overcome geographical and economic barriers that have previously hindered people from accessing psychedelic therapies.
After receiving a dose of a medically-prescribed psychedelic, EI users will embark on a virtual journey using their VR headsets. According to founder David Nikzad, each user’s vision will be specifically tailored to suit their unique background, personality and medical history — with the goal of delivering a “zone of comfortability”. He continues: Not everybody’s going to have the same comfort zone. I might like beaches and waterfalls, somebody else might want to be in the Swiss Alps. We can fine-tune that experience.”
Even current gaming tycoon Roblox, which has been praised for bringing users together through shared experiences, has recently launched greater initiatives to raise awareness around the importance of mental health and personal wellness. Sponsored by Alo Yoga, Roblox recently unveiled the ‘Alo Sanctuary’ in February — a metaverse island with a picturesque landscape, encompassing “three earthly elements of the brand name Alo — an acronym for ‘Air Land Ocean’.” Danny Harris, co-founder of Alo, has called “this first-of-a-kind partnership” a “longstanding commitment to supporting the mental and overall health of the global community at large.”
Providing greater access to mental health care
Many metaverse-related complaints we’ve heard within the past year have circulated around the idea that a more immersive internet will be more addictive than the one we live in now, thereby preventing us from embarking on healthy, socially-engaging lifestyles. However, the practicalities and flexibilities of VR are already proving that the metaverse will also make mental health treatment more accessible and even more plausible for people to access — giving it a very positive use case.
XR technology now makes mental health care accessible to anyone across the globe, regardless of their location or social standing. Users who have historically encountered physical barriers to mental health care can now see more affordable treatment options, all while receiving it through more immersive, lifelike and interactive channels.
Daniel Freeman, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford, has highlighted one problem he sees in the field of clinical psychology — that many patients are unable to attend therapy sessions due to lack of accessibility (including lack of transportation, rigid work schedules or fear of stigmatisation). As an alternative, his team has revealed gameChange — a programme entailing a six-week course, where participants can meet with a virtual coach from anywhere in the world to conquer phobias and other forms of paranoia.
Joy Ventures, a growing VC firm that is seeking the support of science-backed consumer products for wellbeing, has also pointed out the potential for VR treatment to be more personalised and adjusted to meet the personal needs of patients. Additionally, they’ve also stressed the scalability and flexibility of these technologies: “Even before the pandemic, social isolation, stress and anxiety were worsening problems — but with greater use of behavioural health technologies, people will have better and more accessible options for receiving the care they need.”
While mounting research makes several clear arguments for why the metaverse will be a great therapy tool, it’s still important to note the number of potential health risks that are present. Several experts in the fields of both technology and mental health have already expressed concerns about how the immersive and potentially addictive nature of the metaverse can lead to a decline in mental health.
However, other experts argue that this issue is much more nuanced — asserting that factors like genetics, physical activity, diet or socioeconomic standing play a much bigger role in identifying mental health conditions. Nick Allen, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, stresses the importance of context when referring to metaverse use: “[For example], a young person who may be LGBT and who finds an online context where they can feel a sense of social support — we would predict that that would be a benefit for their mental health,” he says. “On the other hand, if using metaverse technologies replaces non-online behaviours that are healthy and supportive to mental health, like appropriate exercise, engagement in relationships in real life, healthy sleep, time spent in natural environments, then they can be harmful.”
It’s critical that both the pros and cons of emerging metaverse technologies be highlighted. Clinical psychologist Barbara Rothbaum, whose efforts in the VR space date back as far as 1995, can vouch for the timeline in which we’ve seen immersive technologies develop and transition from academia to society. We are now at a stage where we can see the efficacy of VR technology from a clinical point of view, but she still insists that there are “some barriers” to overcome.
Overall, studies seem to be trending in the right direction. XR technology appears to have reached us at a pertinent time — when mental health and the effects of isolation have never been a greater concern. As such, we should expect to see the benefits of more innovative, flexible and accessible mental health care become more commonplace over time.