Fighting Mental Illness with Virtual Reality

In 2018, virtual reality is best known for its ability to deliver fully immersive video game experiences. Aside from that though, VR technology has a multitude of applications outside of the entertainment industry: studies indicate that its ability to introduce users to simulated worlds can be used to treat anxiety and severe phobias. This has resulted in the creation of Virtual reality therapy (VRT), which exposes patients to stimuli and/or environments that mimic an actuation of their fears. This new therapy has been tested in clinical trials and utilized by private practices for individuals suffering from fear of heights (Richie’s Plank Experience, we’re looking at you), military PTSD, paranoia, and other forms of anxiety. In most studies, virtual reality treatments were found to be as effective or more effective than standard treatments.

VRT is essentially a high-tech variant of exposure therapy. Exposure therapy has been used for decades to treat phobias and paranoia by carefully introducing patients to fears and triggers. However, real-life (“in-vivo”) exposure therapy is often expensive, difficult to control, and cannot always safely replicate fears. For example, standard exposure therapy for aviophobia (the fear of flying in an airplane) involves a client paying to board a real-life airplane alongside a therapist. Although this technique is often effective, variables outside of the practitioner’s control – such as weather or passenger behaviour – could negatively impact its therapeutic potential. A VR treatment developed by Dr. Barbara Rothbaum allows clinicians to guide their clients through a simulated flight experience without having to spend hundreds of dollars to fly in a plane. Care providers are able to decide which variables to introduce to the simulation and can artificially escalate the situation without putting the patient in any real danger. In an interview, Rothbaum explained,” I can [provide exposure therapy] in my 45- to 50-minute therapy session, with ultimate control. So, if I know they’re not ready for turbulence, I can guarantee there won’t be turbulence.” Rothbaum and her colleagues have incorporated and founded a company, Virtually Better, which designs VR programs for clinicians to use with patients.

The applications of VRT are much greater than what is listed here, they extend beyond exposure therapy. A 2016 study led by Daniel Freeman analyzed the efficacy of virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) versus virtual reality cognitive therapy (VRCT). The study randomly exposed members of a group of 30 patients experiencing persecutory delusions and paranoia to one of the two therapeutic techniques. Both the control group and the experimental group underwent a half-hour simulation in which they were required to stand in an increasingly-crowded train car. The VRCT patients were encouraged to resist compulsions of avoidance and were urged to take bold actions that they would not be comfortable with in real life (e.g speaking directly to a simulated passenger). Comparatively, members of the VRET control group were permitted to use safety-seeking strategies such as avoiding eye contact in order to decrease their in-simulation anxiety. Patients who underwent cognitive therapy reported an average decrease in paranoid thoughts of 42% (compared to 15% in the control group). Both groups also reported decreased distress when faced with a similar real-life situation after their virtual experience. Although the scope and sample size of this study is limited, it demonstrates that VRT is still a developing science and has the capacity to be improved upon in coming decades.

VRT has garnered significant media attention in the last few years, but the therapeutic technique is not a recent invention: Rothbaum developed her airplane simulation more than 20 years ago, and other scientists have been studying its efficacy since the early 1990s. However, therapeutic virtual reality setups available in the 20th century often cost upwards of $1 million to construct, preventing them from becoming widely available. When the Oculus Rift headset entered the consumer market at a price-point of $600 in 2016, it triggered a paradigm shift in the accessibility of virtual reality. Today, an entry-level headset can be purchased for as little as $200, with high-quality setups costing less than $5,000. These prices are still inhibitive for many everyday consumers, but businesses and medical practices are increasingly able to invest in virtual reality technology. In the coming decade, VRT could potentially be administered by trained mental health professionals at local facilities.

Virtual reality therapy is not yet a mainstream therapeutic technique, but it shows a great deal of potential in its ability to combat mental illness. Although VR offers an incredible platform for games, the immersive technology has the capacity to benefit society on a much greater scale. While, DiVRge is not the next testing ground for these new therapies, we do offer a glimpse of what the future can hold with our various experiences.

  • Reese O’Craven


diVRge is the GTA’s newest Virtual Reality Entertainment Centre, where VR newbies can try out what will be next biggest trend in entertainment. With hourly time slots at $29.95, it’s easy to play as many VR games as you’d like. The space can also be rented out for birthday parties, corporate events, or general get-togethers.

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