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Technology to the Rescue: Addressing Mental Health with Virtual Reality

June 30, 2019

On America’s Got Talent, a TV show that pools talent from all over the world, one of the most innovative acts was presented by IDEGO Virtual Reality. The group came to the stage to show exactly how Virtual Reality can be used to treat mental disorders such as phobias. They picked one of the judges to participate in their act. Not only did the judge face his fear of heights through IDEGO’s virtual reality software, but the world was introduced to a whole new use for Virtual Reality.

 

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) is a technology that was first introduced to the public as a new type of gaming and immersion experience. Users wear special VR glasses that simulate real environments; the user can interact with the environment and feel like they’re actually inside it, but in reality, they are not physically standing in that environment.

 

Today this innovative technology is becoming a reality and a means of therapy for addressing mental disorders like phobias, paranoia, and depression. According to techcrunch.com, anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million people in the United States, and they cost the country $42 billion per year. Additionally, phobias affect about 19 million individuals in the country, with PTSD affecting 7.7 million people.

 

Current forms of treatment for these disorders include prescription drugs, therapies, or a combination of both. In some cases, prescription drugs may be a necessity, but may also cause unwanted side-effects. They may also be extremely expensive for those who require the drug, and they may lead to addiction when prescribed in large doses. Other forms of non-drug related solutions like yoga, meditation and therapy may not have the unwanted side-effects but require long term treatment that may or may not be effective. Research conducted over the past ten years in this field has established that VR could be the next best solution for mental health treatment.

 

How Does It Work?

Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) is used to simulate environments where users are exposed to their fears slowly and gradually in a safe and controlled manner. Users wear a headset with VR glasses, and through the glasses they find themselves in an immersive situation which is made even realer through sensory devices that emit smells, sounds, and other sensations, like wind. For example, if someone has a fear of heights, they may undergo VRET and be placed on top of a cliff in the simulation. Although they might feel like they are standing at an extreme height, in reality, they are in a safe and controlled environment that is being monitored by a therapist.

 

By gradually and repeatedly exposing users to these situations, like a crowded room for people with paranoia or a plane for people with a fear of flying, the user will slowly adapt to and eventually become comfortable in these environments and slowly overcome their phobias. Besides exposure therapy, it can be used for cognitive behavior therapy to help users think in a positive manner, handle difficult situations, and manage stress by participating in simulated, calming environments where users can relax and unwind.

 

Who Came up with VRET?

Exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy were common practices among therapists in the 1950s to treat mental disorders. They would physically expose their patients to situations of increasing difficulty pertaining to specific mental disorders, whether it be a phobia, a type of anxiety, or PTSD. Then, in the early 1990s, a couple of psychologists decided to experiment with the new Virtual Reality technology and use it to treat mental disorders. They realized that virtual reality was more realistic than the imagery that was previously created, and that VR was more convenient than physical exposure because it could be controlled and monitored easily.

 

In 1995, a psychologist from Emory University, Barbara Rothbaum, worked with computer scientist Larry Hodges to publish the very first study that examined Virtual Reality therapy and its effectiveness. In 1996, Albert Carlin and Hunter Hoffman, psychologists from the University of Washington, published a study about VRET based on a person that they treated who had such a bad fear of spiders that she blocked every gap and entrance to her bedroom when she slept each night. The same year, Barbara Rothbaum created Virtually Better, a company that worked to create Virtual Reality therapy technology and supply it to other psychologists and doctors who wanted to use it. Now, Virtual Reality therapy is becoming more popular each year, but there are some pros and cons to this system.

 

Pros and Cons of VRET

There are several pros of VRET. The first and major one is that it’s easy to control the environment that the patient is placed in. The therapist can allow the patient to take it slowly, or amp up how challenging the environment is to the patient. This way, the patient will be able to get acclimated to the situation without getting overwhelmed the minute they step into it. Additionally, virtual reality is convenient because it allows the therapist to help the patient overcome their mental disorder, such as a phobia, without having to directly expose the patient or themselves to the fear of an anxiety-inducing situation. Finally, the patient won’t be intimidated by the idea of exposure therapy if they know they are in a controlled virtual environment. If they were physically placed in a fear-inducing environment, the patient would most likely panic and be unable to face their fears or trauma. However, by using VRET, the patient will be more likely to be open towards using this type of exposure as treatment for their disorder.

 

There is one big and ultimate con that prevents VRET from being extremely widespread: its cost. Virtual Reality is generally expensive, but Virtual Reality for exposure therapy requires additional add-ons that increase the price. For example, Virtually Better sold one of their systems for more than $6,000 in 2005, according to careersinpsychology.org. The website also states that while a simpler iPhone version of the system sold for more than $1,000 in 2017, systems that would typically be used in a therapist or doctor’s office cost a lot more than that. Because of cost limitations in various psychology practices and clinicians’ offices, VRET isn’t a very common option. Hopefully, with the mass production of this technology, prices will be lowered and VRET will become a widespread solution for mental disorders.

 

Where is VRET Being Used Today?

There are several different companies using Virtual Reality to treat mental disorders. Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo created an application called Bravemind to help treat PTSD. His application consists of the VR environment, components that emit smells and sounds to fully immerse the user, and many other components. He’s the director of Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technology at the University of Southern California. Additionally, the Virtual Reality Medical Center treats people who have a fear of flying. Their system is similar to Bravemind’s and has extra devices that fully immerse the user with sights, sounds, and other sensations.

 

As mentioned previously, Virtually Better is a company that treats many phobias, including heights, storms, public speaking, and flying. They’ve partnered with many academic institutions along with companies like Bravemind and are working on treating childhood social phobias and anxiety. CleVR is a Netherlands-based company that treats social phobias, including the fear of flying and fear of heights. Their work is backed by scientific research, and they’re currently working on ways to use VR to treat psychosis and other forms of social phobia. Other companies include Psious, VirtualRet, and Mimerse, which are developing VR games to treat people’s mental disorders.

 

So there you have it! Virtual Reality is not only used for games but is quickly becoming the future of treating mental disorders. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more articles!

 

 

Sources:

https://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug05/cure https://techcrunch.com/2016/01/06/virtual-reality-therapy-treating-the-global-mental-health-crisis/?renderMode=ie11 https://careersinpsychology.org/why-virtual-reality-transform-mental-health-treatment/

 

 

 

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