How virtual reality plays a role in mental health treatment

Acrophobia is the term used to describe a fear of heights. This is one of the first phobias that was attempted to be treated using Virtual Reality (VR). We generally associate VR with the gaming and entertainment industry. In 1995, a cross-sector collaborative research between psychologist Barbara Rothbaum, and computer scientist Larry Hodges studied the use of VR in treating acrophobia and found encouraging results. Chris Klock, one of the participants of the study was exposed to varying degrees and types of simulated heights through a VR headset in a clinical setting. His case made headlines when he successfully rode a real glass elevator to a restaurant atop Atlanta’s Westin Peachtree Plaza.

World Health Organization (WHO) data for 2022 reveals that 1 in 8 people in the world suffer from some form of mental disorder. During the COVID pandemic, there was a 28% increase in people suffering from depressive symptoms. Forbes data pegged the numbers at a staggering 246 million in 2023. Conventional treatments for mental health disorders may not be sufficient to keep pace with the growing number of cases. The introduction of VR can help accentuate the treatment and make it more accessible while maintaining the confidentiality of patients. Many patients may delay treatment or avoid physically going to the therapist fearing stigmatisation, inaccessibility etc. VR-based treatments can be provided in such cases making it more accessible.

Two of the widely used methods to treat phobias are Exposure Therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy CBT).

Exposure Therapy focuses on exposing the patients to the feared stimulus, albeit in controlled and monitored environments till they slowly overcome the feared object or situation. Repeated exposure mainly helps in habituation, extinction (of fears), self-efficacy and emotional processing. If a person is being treated for agoraphobia (a fear of places or situations) or ochlophobia (fear of crowds) through exposure therapy, his confidentiality would be difficult to maintain in a crowded place or a particular situation. VR can come in handy in such scenarios since it can simulate the feared stimulus in the secure environment of a closed place.

CBT is widely used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

VRET (Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy): It would be difficult and impractical to recreate stimuli like military combats, accidents, disasters, etc., which would have led to PTSD in patients. In such scenarios, VRET is a boon that can mimic the situations for exposure therapy. The VR immersive experience can closely simulate real-life situations and help in coping mechanisms under controlled clinical supervision.

VR is not a replacement for conventional methods of treatment, rather it is a useful technological aid in the hands of therapists. A company named Amelia (formerly Psious), a pioneer in VR in healthcare, created 70 different VR environments for therapists, to treat different conditions.  Collaborations of such private players with government entities working in mental health are important to advance the research in this area so that evidence-based mental health practices are adopted widely.

VR tools: Bridge Trek is an Ocular VR product that uses gamification to expose users to their fears. The level of fear stimulus gradually increases as users’ (or patients’) progress through the levels. It can help rewire the brain and promote resilience and relaxation to the user. One of the limitations of its use is the age, exposure limit and cost. It is not recommended for patients below the age of 13 and prolonged use by adults is also not advisable. Most therapists will have to bear a licensee fee for the use of such software which in turn may be costly for patients.

The wide adoption of VR in mental health treatment is dependent on various other factors like affordability, accessibility, and acceptance. The global VR market size valued at 2.33 USD in 2022 is expected to grow at 34% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) by 2030. With an increasing number of companies vying for this market size, it is bound to become more competitive in future.

Ultimately, the power of virtual reality in mental health lies not just in its ability to provide treatment but in its capacity to offer hope, empowerment, and a path toward healing. It represents a promising evolution in the way we approach and address mental health concerns, bringing us closer to a future where mental health support is not only effective but also more accessible and stigma-free. The journey towards a mentally healthier world is underway, and virtual reality is an important ally in this vital endeavour.

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