How VR therapy can help the UK’s mental health crisis

At Reydar we’ve been building virtual and augmented reality experiences for brands like Canon for their virtual trade show event and Mastercard for their brand sense book. But the use of virtual reality stretches further than just entertainment with VR assisting treatments for mental illnesses, such as phobias, anxiety, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

While the NHS has already utilised digital apps to support patient’s mental health, it’s predicted that medical care and therapy will use digital technologies to include a wider use of virtual reality in mental health care.

The UK’s mental health crisis

Mental health continues to be a growing concern nationally and the Covid-19 pandemic has only added to the strain on resources. President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Dr Adrian James believes it is, “the biggest hit to mental health since the second world war”.

The prediction is that the impact of Covid-19 will see up to 10 million people, almost 20% of England’s population, needing additional mental health support as a direct result of the crisis. Prior to the pandemic, the Department of Health had already estimated that mental illness cost the UK economy up to £100billion a year.

With the cost of technologies falling, virtual reality could offer a cost-effective support solution to the UK’s mental health crisis.

What’s happening right now?

The largest clinical trial of it’s kind is actively taking place across NHS trusts throughout the UK at the moment. Led by the University of Oxford and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, the trial sees participants with severe mental health disorders use virtual reality therapy to challenge their fears. The gameChange VR study allows participants to complete everyday tasks that they might normally feel overwhelmed by, with the help of a virtual coach.

Dr Rob Dudley, consultant clinical psychologist and lead for the gameChange VR study at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust explained: “By using virtual reality technology treatment people can experience feared places like a local shop, cafe or GP surgery in a virtual environment which feels real enough to allow people learn how to manage, and that they are safer than they feel.”

Although the trial is still in early stages and continuing over the course of 18 months, it is hoped that by users experiencing challenges in a realistic virtual environment, they will be able to manage their fears and anxieties in a controlled way without the added real world stressors.

VR therapy vs. face-to-face therapy

One of the partners of the gameChange VR study is Daniel Freeman, founder of OxfordVR. The team at OxfordVR believe that an effective mental health treatment plan is an active one, where the patient can practice helpful behaviours in realistic situations, something that is not always possible during face-to-face therapy.

Daniel Freeman first began working with VR in 2001 and is a pioneer in the use of VR treatments for mental health patients. In 2017 he conducted research by reviewing 285 studies from a 25 year period that had used VR to treat mental health conditions. His review concluded that, “the results unequivocally confirm that VR is a proven modality for delivering rapid, lasting improvements for patients.”

Oxford VR’s fear of heights application

 

This research was followed up with a trial in 2018 conducted by OxfordVR and University of Oxford, where Freeman is professor of Clinical Psychology. The trial saw 100 people with a prolonged fear of heights either receive VR therapy or no treatment. Those who received VR therapy experienced 5 treatment sessions guided by a virtual assistant, resulting in an average 68% reduction in their fear of heights.

Freeman explained: “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.”

The benefits of VR therapy

VR systems produce a controlled environment, with therapists able to control what a patient sees and hears. They are also able to make adjustments and provide a tailored approach to the individual needs of the patient. Guided virtually, patients experience a safe space to develop their emotional responses.

VR therapy offers an accessible solution to people seeking help for their mental health. While many can hit a stumbling block finding a therapist, or meeting a therapist face-to-face, VR allows the user to access therapists from home without wait times with systems even able to be used with mobile devices and smartphones.

Dr Albert “Skip” Rizzo, the Director of Medical Virtual Reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, spoke at the Psych Congress Elevate conference in 2020, stating that VR should be used as a tool in conjunction with traditional methods: “We’re not eliminating the need for well-trained clinicians,” he said. “In fact, what we’re really doing is giving clinicians tools to extend their skills. Technology doesn’t fix anyone. It’s a tool in the hands of a well-trained clinician.”

Where does VR therapy go from here?

With VR therapy being more cost effective and user friendly, it’s looking to be a promising solution to the growing mental health crisis in the UK in 2021. As virtual reality becomes less experimental and technologies develop, it could become a standardised tool used by clinicians to support therapy and aid mental health.