Virtual reality (VR) has moved beyond gaming and entertainment, finding applications in various other sectors, including healthcare. Besides relying on VR for training and surgery simulations, medical professionals are using VR to diagnose and treat different types of mental illnesses.
It’s estimated that one in four people will suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their life. The World Health Organization reveals that in 2017, 300 million people were diagnosed with depression, while more than 250 million suffered from anxiety. Although there’s no miracle cure for these conditions, there are treatments that could help people live a normal life.
A new treatment for schizophrenia lies in VR
VR makes this possible. In fact, it’s been proven that VR therapy has a positive effect on patients suffering from schizophrenia. People with this condition often have hallucinations, making their daily activities very difficult. According to research conducted by Mar Rus-Calafell, an Oxford University professor, and her team, VR-based therapy can reduce the frequency of schizophrenia symptoms.
The research involved patients between the age of 18 and 65 who’ve suffered from auditory verbal hallucinations for at least 12 months. Auditory verbal hallucinations are quite common among schizophrenia patients, and data shows that 70 per cent of patients have them. Patients involved in the research were divided into two groups. The first group was treated through traditional counselling, while the second group had undergone avatar therapy.
This innovative approach relies on using computer technology and VR to help patients develop a face-to-face interaction with an avatar that represents the patient’s auditory hallucinations. The goal was to encourage the patient to take control of the dialogue with the avatar and eventually conquer the voices in their head. After 12 weeks, the group that was exposed to VR therapy demonstrated a reduction in auditory hallucinations.
VR helps people conquer their biggest fears
If not treated correctly, schizophrenia can ruin a person’s life, and the same is true for phobias. We all have fears, but when those fears start to affect our quality of life, then it’s time to act. And the best way to conquer a fear is to expose yourself to it in a safe environment. A study conducted by Oxford University professors reveals that patients who confront their fears in VR will most likely overcome them. In fact, the same study reports that three out of four patients have conquered their phobia thanks to VR.
All of the 100 respondents involved in the study suffered from a fear of heights, also known as acrophobia, which “is the most commonly reported phobia”. The experiment lasted for two weeks, and during that time, respondents took part in VR sessions. In these sessions, they were introduced to a 10-storey building. On each of the building’s floors, the respondents were required to perform a specific task, such as standing near the balcony or dropping a ball. After all of the sessions have been completed, 69 per cent of respondents no longer had acrophobia. Impressive, right?
VR therapy reduces depression symptoms
Another serious health condition that can luckily be treated with VR is depression. As the American Psychiatric Association reports, every year, one out of 15 adults develop depression. But this condition is common among all age groups, and it affects not only people’s emotions, but also their mood and actions. Depression is traditionally treated with drugs such as antidepressants. However, taking antidepressants can cause insomnia, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. Researchers from University College London and ICREA propose a better and safer alternative.
They conducted an experiment involving 15 adult respondents suffering from depression. The researchers created eight-minute VR sessions and placed the respondents in a virtual room identical to the real room in which they sat during the experiment. In VR, respondents encountered a virtual character representing a child that needed comfort. They were asked to show compassion to the child. Every time a respondent tried to comfort the child, the character would respond positively. The next stage of the session consisted of changing the roles and putting the respondents in a different perspective. This means that “the adult was embodied as the child and their compassionate words were played back to them from a virtual adult”. As a result, nine respondents witnessed a reduction in depression symptoms.
A few years ago, VR had been perceived mostly as a gaming tool. But today, this emerging technology has great potential to transform treatments for mental illnesses. Depression,schizophrenia, and irrational fears are just some of the conditions that could be treated with VR tech. And as the use of VR for mental health care continues to grow, the future looks bright.
Author: Richard van Hooijdonk
International keynote speaker, trend watcher and futurist Richard van Hooijdonk offers inspiring lectures on how technology impacts the way we live, work and do business. Over 420,000 people have already attended his renowned inspiration sessions, in the Netherlands as well as abroad. He works together with RTL television and presents the weekly radio program ‘Mindshift’ on BNR news radio. Van Hooijdonk is also a guest lecturer at Nyenrode and Erasmus Universities. https://www.richardvanhooijdonk.com