Initially many experts used to worry that virtual reality (VR) would damage our brains. A new wave of psychological research is pioneering VR to diagnose and treat medical conditions from social anxiety to chronic pain to Alzheimer’s disease. Many of these solutions are still in laboratory testing, but some are already making their way into hospitals and therapists’ offices.
Awareness around mental health has skyrocketed in the past decade. The many studies that came out in the past few years have shown that mental health issues among the general population are higher than what people initially thought. This shattered the illusion that only a select few suffered from these problems. And as a result, people are now aware that mental health problems deserve as much attention as physical health ones.
Nowadays, thankfully, there are many treatment options out there for those suffering from these problems. They can get help from therapists from various disciplines, who can help them to cope with or overcome their illnesses. They can even get help from specialists who are experts at treating specific diseases
The way patients are treated has also evolved over the years. Experts have introduced many techniques and tools, to better diagnose and treat illnesses.
The pandemic, however, has shown that psychological treatment can be done in new ways with the aid of technology. Many therapists have continued treating their patients using technologies like video conferencing. This has helped thousands of patients to continue their treatment process, without worrying about the risks associated with a face-to-face consultation.
Virtual reality is one such technology that has the potential to revolutionize mental healthcare. The technology, which completely immerses people into an alternate reality, has a lot of possibilities that therapists can explore. Let’s look at a few of them:
VR can be used to treat different types of mental illnesses including PTSD and phobias. This was first shown by Dr.Rizzo, who is known as the father of the clinical virtual reality industry.
Back in 2003, he started a program called Bravemind with the US army. The program aimed to help returning US soldiers to overcome their PTSD with the help of VR. The program exposed the soldiers to environments similar to what they were exposed to during their time serving in the army. This allowed them to work through their emotions and recover better.
Phobias can also be similarly treated. The leading technique used to treat phobias like a fear of heights or snakes is exposure therapy. Under exposure therapy, the patient is gradually exposed to their fear. The stimulus is made progressively stronger until the patient’s fear is gone.
For instance, if a patient has a fear of heights, they may be taken to the top of a small building first. Then the therapist may gradually escalate to increasing heights as the patient becomes more accustomed and they are eventually able to cope with higher heights without fear.
In VR, this can be done by simulating the experience the patient is afraid of. This will give the therapist much more control over the overall process. It will also make the experience much safer.
Besides, VR also allows therapists to provide better remote mental healthcare. In a virtual reality setting, the patient will feel like the therapist is right beside them, which will make them more comfortable. As opposed to a video conference, where the patient may feel disconnected from the therapist. This approach can help patients open up better and therapists to then help them better even if they are far away.
Already, there are many services available for virtual reality headsets that therapists can use for treatment. The app Psious for instance provides 70+ virtual reality environments that therapists can immerse their patients in.
One drawback many cite about the traditional mental health diagnosis process is that it relies on pen and paper. Usually, the patient is asked to fill in a questionnaire and from the answers, the therapist understands the disease. But sometimes this method may not give the therapist all the details they require.
But by using virtual reality alongside these questionnaires therapists can get much more insight into their patient’s illness.
This was illustrated by a group of researchers who tried to diagnose Alzheimer’s using VR. One of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s includes spatial disorientation. In the study mentioned, the researchers immersed people in a virtual environment and tested their navigation skills. The researchers concluded that a VR navigation test is better at identifying the onset of Alzheimer’s than many methods used currently.
We can rest assured that researchers will employ similar methods in the future for diagnosing other diseases.
Though it is not a replacement to therapy let alone for treating severe mental health illnesses self-help, when used wisely, can help people overcome their mental troubles.
Smartphone users for instance can use self-help apps to overcome some of their troubles. Many of them like What’s Up? use principles from popular therapeutic approaches like CBT and ACT. Using these apps, many people can get the help they deserve without stigma or breaking their bank.
Virtual reality can take this one step further. With virtual reality, people can get assistance from AI-powered virtual therapists. These virtual therapists can guide the patient and get better, similar to how the smartphone apps do now, but only better.
Some mental health experts caution against this approach, however. Because self-treatment can lead to a lot of problems. People may even refuse to get professional help thinking they can do it themselves when they in fact can’t.
But VR self-help apps may have their own space in the future. If not as standalone treatment options, then at least as a supplement to real therapy.
VR has the potential to become an integral part of mental health treatment in the future. Its many features can help therapists provide better care to their patients.
If you would like to build a VR mental healthcare app, you can hire our VR development services. We are a team of VR experts who can develop solutions that adhere to strict guidelines.