Could Virtual Reality Therapy be the Answer to America’s Mental Health Crisis?

When most people think of virtual reality, they think of the it as the next step in video gaming, but the handsets could soon serve a much bigger purpose: helping to solve America’s mental health crisis. Most people experience some level of anxiety and stress in their lives, ranging from relatively mild to sever or even debilitating in the worst of cases. According to TechCrunch, an estimated one in five people in the U.S. have a diagnosable mental disorder, costing an estimated $467 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses.

Whether it be work related stress, an irrational fear or phobia, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there are numerous mental health challenges facing Americans today. While drugs are a popular option for treating mental health disorders, they are often over-prescribed and can carry potentially undesirable side effects. This is why mental and behavioral health treatments that do not require drugs, such as meditation, herbal remedies and virtual reality therapy (VRT) are becoming increasingly popular.



The Intersection of Virtual Reality and Mental Health

Despite what it seems, VR technology dates all the way back to the late 60’s with the release of The Sword of Damocles, widely considered to be the first VR and augmented reality head-mounted display. Created by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland with the help of his student Bob Sproull, the device was primitive both in terms of user interface and graphics. Today, VR is more real than ever. Although you know deep down that what you’re seeing isn’t real, both your mind and body buy into the experience as if it were. It is VR’s ability to “trick” the mind that makes it a potentially effective treatment for mental health disorders like PTSD.

Today, VR has evolved past the experimental stage has the potential to become an effective solution to mental health challenges. VR therapy uses specially programmed computers, visual immersion and artificially manufactured digital environments to deliver a simulated experience to patients. Along with PTSD, VR Exposure Therapy (VRET) is already successfully used to treat those who suffer from acrophobia (fear of heights). In the treatment, the person is guided through progressively more challenging situations that help them discover that they are actually safe and not in danger. What’s profound, and somewhat surprising, is that VR exposure therapy is just as effective as taking patients into real-world situations, according to a recent study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

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Decentralizing Mental Health Care

While it’s gaining popularity today, VRET has been used as a treatment by therapists and psychiatrists since the 1990’s. However, due to high cost and technological limitations, it hasn’t been widely available until recently. With the invention of affordable VR headsets like the Gear VR and the growing popularity of telemedicine, therapists can now administer treatment remotely to reach more patients than ever before. Since VRET is so new, one of the biggest challenges facing its acceptance as a legitimate mental health treatment is the lack of clinical evidence and data to support exactly how and when it should be used as a treatment both inside and outside of the clinic.


Studies Exploring the Effectiveness of Virtual Reality Therapy

As mentioned previously, VRET has been shown to be an effective way to administer treatment for the fear of heights, according to a study conducted by the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Amsterdam. The findings of the study showed that VRET can be effective with relatively cheap hardware and software on stand-alone computers currently on the market and recommended that further studies into the effectiveness of VR exposure be done to explore effectiveness in other clinical groups such as agoraphobics and social phobics.

Another study published by the US national library of medicine found that VRET can also be effective in treating PTSD. Typically, part of the treatment for a soldier suffering from PTSD is to get them to relive their traumatic experiences in order to help them process the negative feelings and fear associated with them. Recently, the army turned towards VRET, which uses elaborate immersive simulations to help treat PTSD. Dr. Michael Valdovinos, chief of outpatient behavioral health at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany argues that one of the greatest benefits of VRET is that it allows soldiers to cope with specific stressors from the past at their own pace. Through a process of repetition, patients learn to process the negative thoughts, feelings and emotions associated with undesirable memories by re-experiencing them in a virtual, non-stressful environment, according to a Defense Systems article.

“It’s an extremely effective treatment because it is a patient’s personalized reality that they learn to process, control and regulate,” said Valdovinos in an Army release. “Visual memory is powerful, and if I can use that to help patients create their own movie scene, then they can move into it to rewrite their own scripts.”


Building a Future for Mental Health Treatment

While it’s still in its infancy, VRET has the potential to bring light to the darkness of mental health challenges. Decades of research on VR has established a solid foundation for improving mental health through the use of VRET. Yet, with extremely high cost of technology, widespread patient accessibility may still be years away.

Innovative medical companies around the world are currently focusing on developing more clinical applications for virtual reality. Larry Hodges, an active virtual reality researcher and professor of Human-Centered Computing at Clemson University, and Barbara Rothbaum of Emory University are doing extensive work in virtual reality therapy, already have several patients and founded a company, Virtually Better Inc. Additionally, the United States Department of Defense (DOD) continues to fund virtual reality therapy research and actively uses VRET in the treatment of PTSD.

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