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Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy : a mental health treatment revolution ?

Health care is in constant development. Alongside technological and digital revolutions healthcare is bound to reach a revolution too, more specifically in mental health care with the use of virtual reality.

Virtual reality is becoming a staple in the gaming industry. It allows players to be fully immersed in a digital environment thanks to  headsets and hand controlers designed specifically to be used in these digital worlds. For example, one of the biggest game of the 2010s, Skyrim, has a VR option which is extremely popular since it allows the player to see and interact with the world as if he was inside of it. This complete immersion can prove to be decisive concerning mental health.

What is VRT ?

Virtual Reality Therapy is the use of a 3D environment or a computer-generated one, such as a game or a VR headset to treat patients through these immersive experiences. A licensed therapist will use available techology to improve the proposed treatment by usage of visual and interactive cues.

The use of Virtual Reality in healthcare has been the subject of numerous studies around the world, and the AR/VR (Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality) healthcare market is booming.

Ultimately, the ability of Virtual Reality to simulate reality could considerably increase access to psychological therapies and improve treatment results. Alongside traditional therapies, Virtual Reality offers new perspectives: the ability to control the environment, programme the treatment, adapt to the individual and be able to repeat scenarios.

Is VRT successful ?

Virtual Reality Therapy will surely become a must in the mental health care industry. Here is an example : In 2012, more than 11 years ago, the US Naval Medical Center based in California used VR to immerse soldiers suffering from PTSD in combat simulations. They received 3D images, sounds, vibrations, smells : they could feel it all as if it was happening (and such is the power of VR). This allowed them to work through their PTSD and enabled them to finally open up and share their experience and talk about it, while previously unable to.

Most of the studies carried out on the links between Virtual Reality and mental health show very positive results, demonstrating that the use of this technology in the treatment of mental health disorders can achieve significant and lasting improvements very quickly, particularly in conditions such as anxiety, and more specifically social anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic syndromes.

Daniel Freeman, Professor of Clinical Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, has conducted 285 studies over the last 25 years on the correlation between Virtual Reality and mental health, the vast majority of which concerned anxiety disorder. His goal was to understand and demonstrate the potential of Virtual Reality in treating mental health problems. He found that mental health problems are fully linked to the environment, and that Virtual Reality provides both a better understanding of the disorders experienced by patients and new opportunities for care through the repetition of problematic situations, enabling patients to learn how to overcome the difficulties they encountered.

Daniel Freeman then decided to launch a VRT program to help treat people suffering from fear of heights. 100 patients suffering from acrophobia were used as a sample for this program. The therapist was replaced by a computer-generated avatar to guide users through a cognitive treatment program. Patients would spend, on average, two hours of full immersion, spread over five sessions. The results were clear and very positive : acrophobia was reduced by 68% on average in the group that used VRT.

VRT has also had success concerning PTSD when used to improve cognitive behavioral therapy (« a form of psychological treatment that combines two types of therapy: cognitive therapy, which examines the things you think, and behavioral therapy, which examines the things you do. ») : its success rate varies from 66% to 90%.

VRT also helps patients suffering from arachnophobia, eating disorders, and even for pain relief with burn victims being transported to a snowy environment and interacting with it, reducing their physical pain from 35% to 50%.

VRT can also be done while at home with specific apps and platforms designed for it. If a person has a physical disability preventing them from going to appointments, no worries ! They’ll be able to get therapy thanks to VRT.

While VRT is overwhelmingly positive concerning mental health treatment, it also comes with its own set of risks. First of all, if a person wants to be treated while staying home, they’ll need the appropriate equipment which can be expensive. Also, VRT doesn’t depend solely on the equipment, but also on the quality of the treatment : while one may not feel immersed at all meaning VRT will not work, it should also be noted that an environment that feels too immersive for the patient may retraumatize them. That is why specialists are usually needed : risks do exist, and only professionals will be able to optimally use VRT.

To conclude, 2022 brought major improvements to this method : the gamechange VR program has created an automated psychological therapy program for people suffering from psychosis and severe social anxiety : there is no need for a therapist since there’s an in-built virtual coach. While still being supervised, there is less need to therapists, helping people who find it hard to even leave the house get treatment. The revolution is here, and we hope it will be successful.

                 The gamechange VR program in-built virtual coach

To learn more :

https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/virtual-reality-therapy/

https://www.dreamaway.fr/realite-virtuelle-sante-mentale/

https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/A786FC699B11F6A4BB02B6F99DC20237/S003329171700040Xa.pdf/virtual_reality_in_the_assessment_understanding_and_treatment_of_mental_health_disorders.pdf

https://positivepsychology.com/virtual-reality-therapy/

https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-081219-115923#_i2

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11920-020-01156-1

https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2022-04-05-breakthrough-success-provision-automated-psychological-therapy-using-virtual-reality

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