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Has Virtual Reality got the power to revolutionise therapy?6 min read

Virtual reality is slowly allowing to change the face of therapy by putting a headset on and submerging yourself in a fake, yet very realistic, universe. 

Imagine coming back home at the end of a stressful workday, after having spent an hour stuck on public transport during rush hour. You’re tense and in desperate need to unwind, looking for an escape from your worries for even just ten minutes. It may be possible to achieve that peace of mind, without having to book an escape holiday from the city.

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) is the creation of a virtual environment, which is presented in a way that makes you believe you are truly a part of it. By putting on a pair of VR goggles people can be convinced that they are in a speeding race car, in the middle of a medieval sword fight or on a different continent. 

Admittedly, many associate VR with video games as the next step for immersive gaming. However, VR can be used for important mental health treatments and is quickly being picked up by professionals in the UK. 

Defying the concept of space and time in therapy

“The way virtual reality is primarily used in mental health is to produce or give people an experience of those external environments within the therapy session. So, the situations patients may find difficult to experience themselves first-hand,” says Matteo Cella, a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at King’s College London.

According to Mind, a UK mental health charity, one in four people in the UK experiences a common mental health issue such as depression or anxiety. Annual statistics suggest only one in eight adults are actively receiving treatment for it.

There could be many factors behind this. Some people cannot afford private therapists and the NHS is not able to guarantee adequate treatment for everyone. Moreover, weekly schedules sometimes do not allow people to engage in face-to-face therapy sessions. Others might simply feel ashamed or scared to seek professional help.

The lives of those dealing with mental health-related issues are dominated by anxiety, fear, and negative thoughts. Some even struggle to leave their house. 

The advantages of VR

Patients being able to access online resources like VR headsets can have positive effects. Firstly, it supports the NHS in tackling the high demand for therapy. People who do not necessarily require or want specific medical treatments have the opportunity to help themselves. VR can be a useful addition to therapy for those treated by clinicians. 

Dr Cella says: “One key principle that virtual reality is able to use as a tool, is something that we call exposure, which is part of what cognitive-behavioural therapy uses. It essentially allows people to experience something that they might find difficult to engage with.”

He is currently conducting research on how people with psychosis respond to VR treatment. He describes psychosis as a quite severe and enduring mental condition that is characterised by hallucinations and delusions. In the long run, these symptoms impact one’s ability to live what can be considered a regular life; interacting with people or leaving the house. 

VR as an addition to therapy

This is when virtual reality plays a significant role in supporting patients’ recovery. Dr Cella explains: “For us, using virtual reality in therapies is important. You can re-expose people to those things that we regularly do, like going to the bars, going out or meeting people in a safe environment with the presence of a therapist.”

In this case, patients can familiarise themselves with tasks they haven’t carried out in a long time. It is a gentler way of challenging patients, instead of directly asking them to engage in situations they are not comfortable in.

“At first the anxiety will go up, but a principle of anxiety is if you oppose it, then you learn how to manage it as soon as you realise that there is nothing threatening about the experience,” adds Dr Cella. 

VR as a way of building empathy?

Not only does VR allow people to challenge themselves, but it also offers a great opportunity to overcome space restrictions. Dr Naomi Murphy, a clinical and forensic prison-based NHS psychologist, works in a specialist service for men with personality disorders. She is conducting two different pieces of research on how prisons can benefit from VR. 

Her first experiment looks at promoting empathy amongst prisoners during jail cell searches. By recreating a cell search in which prisoners can witness the scene from the perspective of staff members. She hopes that prisoners will understand the impact their verbal abuse has, without using the threat of physical violence. 

“It’s that thing about being able to look at another person’s perspective,” she says, adding, “You can ask someone to imagine what it’s like to be in that situation. But that’s not as powerful as if you put somebody in a visual situation and even though you know that it’s not real, it can really have quite a strong effect on you.”

VR as a form of escapism for convicts?

Dr Murphy is also carrying out research about incorporating VR in her therapy sessions with prisoners. She uses it as a way to reduce her patients’ hostility and aggressiveness. She does this by transporting them to a calmer and more soothing place. So far, they are responding positively to the stimuli. 

She says: “We work quite hard to encourage the development of mindfulness skills in the prisoners, but some people really struggle with that. Especially people who’ve had really traumatic upbringings.

“So actually, having the visuals of a tranquil coastal scene can really aid someone in getting into a mindful place. This wouldn’t be possible otherwise, because of the austerity of prison environments,” she adds.

Is the public ready for VR?

Following the results of the studies, VR could emerge to be a helpful tool for therapists – especially for those working in a hospital or prison environment. It is where they have the most limited access to what triggers a patient’s anxiety or rage. However, Dr Cella, who also works as a clinician for the NHS, is sceptical about whether public services will offer VR services anytime soon. 

“I think when we talk about implementation, it’s important to consider the environment that it needs to be implemented into. The NHS, sometimes, is a slow machine to catch up with progress. To use technology, you need to have an infrastructure that is able to accept that technology,” says Dr Cella. 

However, he also clarifies that conditions at the NHS are improving. VR is also getting lighter, cheaper and the kits are easier to use. According to this second movement, there is hope for the future. Although it will be a gradual shift, there will be a meeting point between the NHS technology capacity and VR.

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