My experience with virtual reality is very limited. My brother switched from the Apple IPhone to the Samsung Galaxy in early December. He did not particularly like Samsung or dislike Apple. He just switched because Samsung would provide a free VR headset if he chose to switch smart phones. When I visited my brother forChristmas, I was able to try his Samsung GEAR headset. He set up a simulation where I sky dived and walked through a jungle. I was not impressed to say the least, but I knew that I was experiencing a low-end product that barely captured the capabilities of VR. I do believe that VR will
completely change the entertainment and gaming industries. Humans want their entertainment experience to be as realistic as possible and VR can do this. However, I ask you what other industries will VR affect and disrupt? You may answer this by saying retail, education, advertising, and these all makes sense. Did you include the mental health industry? If so, you are correct and it has been happening for over two decades.
Virtual reality has been used to treat mental illness for a long time now. Max North was the person to coin the term virtual therapy. In 1992, he began writing his dissertation on how virtual environments can treat psychological disorders. Ralph Lamson was the first psychologist to experiment with VR therapy. He suffered from acrophobia (fear of heights). In 1994, Lamson used a VR device to simulate that he was on a flying carpet. After repeated exposure to heights through the simulation, his phobia began to lessen. He successfully treated his own acrophobia with the use of VR therapy. Lamson conducted further studies on VR’s therapeutic benefits and published a book in 1997 titled Virtual Therapy. He remains heavily involved in development and teaching of the VR therapy. Many psychologist have expanded on the practice of VR therapy since North’s original publication and Lamson’s experiments. Let’s take a look at two examples.
VR therapy has been proven to be effective in the treatment of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) patients. Specifically, VR therapy has been successful in helping alleviate the post-traumatic symptoms that veterans experience when they return from war. Using VR, veterans are able to navigate and interact with a simulation that is designed to trigger memories, flashbacks, and mental and physical reactions associated with PTSD. Similar to Lamson treatment of acrophobia, soldiers are gradually exposed to more of the simulation. While they navigate the simulation, a trained clinician is present to talk with the patient about what he or she is experiencing. The simulations are adaptable. The clinician has the ability to add in events as the simulation progresses. As the patient experiences certain stressors the clinician uses cognitive behavior therapy to educate the patient on what they are feeling and teach them coping strategies and skills to alleviate the stressors. Over time, the patient develops their own “tools” that they can use in real life. In the past, treating PTSD was very difficult because patients avoid reliving and imagining their traumatic experiences. This is one of the primary symptoms of PTSD. With VR, patients do not have to use their own imagination. They are able to safely navigate through a trauma using a VR headset.
Virtual reality is also being used to help treat depression. A recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open stated that VR therapy can reduce symptoms of depression by increasing feelings of self-compassion and lowering feelings self-criticism. In the VR therapy sessions of the study, the patient would face a mirror that would reflect an image of their own avatar. When the patient moved their body, the avatar would match the patient’s movements. This allowed the patient to feel like they were actually in the avatar’s body. Next, they were shown the avatar of a distressed child sitting in a chair across from them. The patient is then advised to console the child. When the patient speaks kind words, the child would progressively relax and calm down. In the final step of the session, the patient embodied the avatar of the distressed child. The simulation was replayed from the child’s eyes and the patient able to see the gestures and hear the words that they said as the adult avatar just minutes earlier. The study had impressive results. Patients who underwent the therapy showed reduced symptoms of depression and stated that they were less critical of themselves. Dr. Chris Brewin, head author of the study, states, “By comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion.” Patients that suffer from depression have difficulty being compassionate to themselves. This experiment demonstrated VR can be used to initiate statements of self-compassion leading to reduced feelings of self-criticism. Conveniently, this treatment can be accessed remotely for people who do not want to see a therapist in person or feel stigma for receiving therapeutic services.
The examples above are just scratching the surface of how VR can treat mental illness. What are your thoughts on this use of VR to treat mental illness and where do you see VR therapy in the future?