What are the serious impact of virtual reality? The first thing that comes to mind when you think of virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) is probably video games or entertaining virtual experiences. The truth is, virtual reality is so much more useful and functional for more than just the gaming industry. Both augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have been used in so many other industries including but not limited to surgery, sports, and even for dogs in the military. One of the biggest industries that this technology is being used for now however, is mental health.

Mental health has continued to become a growing concern all over the world in recent years. It costs the UK economy approximately £100 billion a year and 1 in 4 people in England have been reported to have a mental health problem every year. In addition to that it has also been predicted that because of Covid-19, up to 10 million people are going to need mental health treatment and support thanks to the consequences of this crisis. The systems are already burdened worldwide. In England that is an estimated 20% of the population needing mental health support and treatment.

Virtual reality has been great for assisting with treatment of mental illnesses including eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, phobias, and more. Digital applications are already being utilized by NHS to treat patient’s mental health issues and with new technologies coming out and being affordable it is likely that the medical industry and therapists will look to take advantage of these technologies to further use virtual and augmented reality for mental health support.

Impact of Virtual Reality: Virtual Reality Therapy’s Promising Impact

Throughout the UK there is a clinical trial happening. It just so happens to be the largest one of its kind and it is being led by the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Oxford. It takes participants who suffer from severe mental disorders and uses virtual reality therapy to challenge their fears under the guidance of a virtual therapist. The “gameChange” virtual reality study’s goal is for participants to complete simple everyday chores and errands that may cause them to feel otherwise overwhelmed.

Dr. Rob Dudley, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust’s leader for the study, has talked about his work and how it will help many people. He mentions that people experience fear in many ways and places. Some people may become fearful when visiting a local store or café, and VR technology treatment could help these people be able to learn how to manage this experience. It’s virtually risk-free and could help a lot of folks learn how to face their fearful challenges and overcome that stress, fear, etc. in the real world.

The trial will continue over the course of 18 months and although it is still in early stages it is hoped that by allowing users to experience challenging tasks in a more realistic environment rather than a staged one, they will hopefully be able to overcome their fears and worries in a more controlled way without any of the real world added stressors and risks.

Face-to-Face Therapy vs. Virtual Reality Therapy

One of the partners of the gameChange virtual reality study is OxfordVR which was founded by Daniel Freeman. The OxfordVR team believe that an active plan is the best plan for mental health support and treatment. One where patients can use realistic situations to practice beneficial and functional behaviors which cannot always be accomplished during face-to-face therapy sessions.

Daniel Freeman began first working with virtual reality in 2001 and has since become something of a pioneer when it comes to using virtual reality for mental health treatments and support. Back in 2017 he researched by going through 285 studies over a 25-year period that had all used virtual reality to treat varying mental health conditions.

In 2018 OxfordVR and University of Oxford, where Freeman is a professor of Clinical Psychology, followed up this research with a trial of their own. This trial involved 100 people that had a long fear of heights and they either received no treatment or they received virtual reality therapy. The subjects who received the virtual reality therapy went through 5 sessions that were guided by a virtual therapist and on average there was a 68% decrease in fear of height.

Daniel Freeman said, “Virtual reality is transforming psychological therapy in all sorts of areas… There are very few conditions VR can’t help because, in the end, every mental health problem is about dealing with a problem in the real world, and VR can produce that troubling situation for you.”

Benefits of Virtual Reality Therapy

Therapists are able to control everything that a patient hears and sees with a controlled environment when using virtual reality systems. They can make adjustments and customize the experience to the patient’s individual needs. They can guide their customers and patients virtually through an experience in a safe space to help them to develop further their emotional responses and actions.

Virtual reality therapy is an affordable and accessible way for people to seek help for their mental health issues. Finding and meeting a therapist face to face can be difficult for some patients but using virtual reality allows for the user to have access to therapy from home with VR systems that are compatible with smartphones and mobile devices and do not require wait times. 

The Director of Medical Virtual Reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo had the pleasure of speaking at the Psych Congress Elevate conference back in 2020, stating that virtual reality should be used in conjunction with more traditional methods of therapy: “We’re not eliminating the need for well-trained clinicians. Technology doesn’t fix anyone.

Where Will Virtual Reality Therapy Go From Here?

Virtual reality therapy is easier to use and more cost effective making it an optimal solution for the worldwide mental health crisis that is growing. People can receive care from the comfort of their homes which helps with social distancing. It is not about replacing traditional therapy but rather complementing it with new technology. Virtual reality therapy is likely to become more readily available and used more the more beneficial it proves to be. Hope it was a good read on the impact of virtual reality on mental health.

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