Can virtual reality be effective in treating mental health conditions?

Can virtual reality be effective in treating mental health conditions?

Most of us are familiar with virtual reality (VR) due to the increasingly popular audio and visual games that require the user to wear VR goggles. This includes a headset display, stereo sound and head motion tracking to provide an immersive experience. Though VR has been around for decades, it is only recently that its potential as a treatment for mental health disorders is being assessed and acknowledged. Besides being an innovative technological achievement, VR can also play a crucial role in addressing the various challenges of mental disorders.

Since one in four people in the world is likely to experience mental health or neurological issues at some point in their life, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the scale of mental disorders is no longer a secret.  Additionally, one in five adults has been diagnosed with a mental disorder, which is approximately 43 million Americans, as highlighted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

For a treatment to be effective, a patient is usually expected to be in touch with a therapist who can take up the role of a personal trainer. Unfortunately, this seldom happens even when therapists recognize the need for this approach because of time constraints. During such situations, VR proves to be useful. It uses the principle of exposure therapy (ET), which involves exposing the patient to the feared object or situation but within the confines of a safe and controlled environment. With VR gaining foothold in the market, it is equally becoming popular as a way to treat mental disorders

Some of the advantages of using virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) are as follows:

  • Recreates life-like situations by controlling the environment, scheduling treatment, and repeating and adjusting scenarios to improve treatment.
  • Avoids impractical transportation and travelling problems that benefits patients suffering from debilitating diseases, such as paralysis, extreme obesity, etc.
  • Assists in conducting the treatment from anywhere in the world, which encourages people who hesitate to take medication and other services due to social taboos to access treatment.
  • Reduces ethical concerns arising due to the proximity between the therapist and client, which decreases the chances of forming inappropriate client-therapist relations.
  • Ensures insurance benefits as some insurance companies do not cover the extended time needed for in vivo ET whereas VR therapy often requires much less time.

Potential of VR in rehabilitating people with mental disorders

VR has been used successfully in the treatment of mental disorders, such as panic disorder, agoraphobia, acrophobia, spider phobia, body image disturbances, binge eating disorders and fear of flying. It has also proved useful in the treatment of social phobia, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, trypanophobia and fear of driving.

In addition to the above, VR has been used in cognitive rehabilitation wherein autistic adults or children get help in developing the skills necessary for completing activities independently, such as crossing a road, picking up the visual cues or paying attention to another person during a conversation. Considering their low employability rate and lack of promising results, researchers are also providing training to people suffering from autism and any type of severe mental illness to ensure success in job interviews and other important events.

VRET is becoming useful in treating people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly those who have experienced combat trauma. VR helps the patient to revisit the traumatizing scenario once again in a safe and controlled environment using an interactive computer-generated environment that simulates the traumatic experience. By revisiting their painful memories, patients are able to process the emotions with reduced anxiety.

Due to the relative newness of this technology in the field of behavioral science, a patient may become overexposed to VR by the clinicians and researchers trying to gain more insight into the efficacy of the therapy. Along with the risk of overexposure, there is a high risk of having medical practitioners and therapists lacking adequate experience in VRET. In fact, some clinicians may even practice it only to attract new clients.

Treating mental health disorders through innovative techniques

Although VR has been around for decades, it is still in the early stage with regard to the mental health scenario due to the dearth of clinical studies evaluating the effectiveness of VRET in treating psychiatric conditions. However, its potential is clearly undeniable.

If you know someone who is suffering from any kind of mental disorder, contact the Florida Mental Health Helpline to access the best treatment. Call us at our 24/7 helpline number 866-846-5588 or chat online to know about the best mental health counselor in Florida.