Five ways virtual reality is transforming mental health

One in four of us will experience mental health issues at some point in our life. While we are still a long way from being able to provide timely mental health treatment to everyone who needs it, VR-enabled therapy a ground-breaking new treatment is a promising new approach.

What is VR-enabled therapy?

VR-enabled therapy is the use of virtual reality technology for psychological therapy. Patients navigate through digitally created environments and complete specially designed tasks tailored to treat a specific ailment.

VR-enabled therapy is delivering better MH outcomes

VR-enabled therapy is a proven way to deliver rapid, lasting improvements in mental health. Multiple clinical trials show how results are at least as good as, if not better than, face-to-face therapy. One such VR-enabled therapy treatment for clinically diagnosed fear of heights which has been developed by Oxford VR has demonstrated to be successful in reducing patients fears by an average of nearly 70%, demonstrating its huge potential to address a variety of other mental health problems. VR has an extraordinary ability to create powerful simulations of the scenarios in which psychological difficulties occur. With VR-enabled therapy, there’s no need for a therapist to accompany a client on a trip to a crowded shopping centre, for example, or up to a tall building. Results are also better than those expected with the best psychological intervention delivered face to face with a therapist. According to Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University: “VR isn’t just capable of helping us with what seem like more straightforward phobias and anxiety-disorders. It can also help with depression, schizophrenia, paranoia.”

Capacity to deliver high quality treatment at scale

Many people still go untreated due to a shortage of qualified clinicians, long waiting lists and stigma. As VR-enabled therapy is automated and the therapist is embedded within the programme, as an avatar, it enables evidence-based treatment to be delivered faster than traditional therapy and can facilitate a large increase in the number of patients who can be treated. Freeman said: “We know what we do works. The potential for large-scale benefits is so exciting.”

Provides a better MH experience for patients

Studies indicate that between 20-30% of individuals drop out of treatment and will, therefore continue to struggle with the same mental health problem and may even get worse. VR-enabled therapy is delivering a superior patient experience. Gamification has the potential to increase the impact of mental health interventions. Daniel Freeman says: “The brilliant thing about virtual reality is that you can provide powerful simulations in the environment without the perceived dangers of a real-life setting and have people repeatedly go into them.”

The VR environments and activities are so compelling and immersive that both the data and patient testimonies show that users find therapy easy to engage with and even fun to use.

Cost saving potential

Mental ill-health costs the UK more than £94 billion every year, counting treatment, social support costs and the losses to the economy from people who cannot work. Mental health services are unable to cope with demand due to rising demand, workforce shortages and funding issues. Freeman says: “With VR-enabled therapy there is an upfront investment to create the treatment; however there will be large cost-savings when used by many people.” Because VR-enabled therapy automated it enables reallocation of skilled mental health clinicians. Oxford VR’s Fear of heights treatment averages at just two hours of treatment time, compared to at least six hours for traditional face-to-face therapy.

Responds to increasing expectations of patients

VR makes therapy fun. Patients find it easier to do the therapy in the virtual world – and they enjoy using VR applications. Patients say it’s an incredible experience. But the beauty of virtual reality therapy is that the benefits transfer to the real world. Younger patients are also very willing to use VR too. During clinical studies, most subjects found VR to be a pleasant and positive experience, providing a distraction from their anxiety and distress.

Daniel Freeman is professor of clinical psychology and NIHR Research Professor at the University of Oxford, Consultant clinical psychologist, Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, Fellow, University College Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Psychological Society.



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