Researchers Study Ways to Reduce Paranoia with Virtual Reality
Virtual reality has been used to help treat severe paranoia, by means of a procedure where patients who suffer persecutory delusions being encouraged to step into a computer-generated underground train carriage and a lift.
The simulations were a way to allow the study’s 30 patients to learn and get comfortable in social situations they feared were actually unsafe.
The research at Oxford University, which was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, was funded by the Medical Research Council.
The participants were split into two groups. Members of one group of patients were instructed to use their normal defensive behavior, such as avoiding eye contact, while the rest of the patients were encouraged to get over their inhibitions and try to learn they were safe by approaching computer characters and standing toe-to-toe or staring at them.
‘Paranoia melts away’
The second group, who fully tested out their fears, showed the more significant reduction in their paranoid delusions. Over half of them no longer exhibited severe paranoia at the end of the testing day.
The first group, who were allowed to use their defenses, also witnessed some reduction in the level of their severe paranoia.
The study’s leader, Prof Daniel Freeman, a clinical psychologist at Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry said: “At the heart of paranoia is the unfounded belief that people are under threat.
“With virtual reality we can help the person to re-learn that they are safe, and when they do that, the paranoia melts away.”
The Oxford research team estimate that about 1-2% of the population suffer from severe paranoia at some point in their lives, typically associated with a mental health disorder like schizophrenia.
People suffering from severe paranoia have such a strong sense of mistrust that they avoid contact with people and sometimes, rarely leave their home.
Even though the study was small and the patients had just one half-hour session of virtual reality with no long-term follow-up, Prof Freeman was confident that the results were “exceptionally good”.
He added: “I think this a glimpse into the future of mental healthcare. There is a revolution underway in virtual reality with many headsets becoming available.
“As these become more affordable we will see them used not just in clinical settings, but in people’s homes.”
The Effect of the Treatment
Toby Brabham, aged 45, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia over 20 years ago, and has experienced severe paranoia said: “I used to experience persecutory voices – they would be having a go at me.
I would avoid going out and when I did it was with my head down so I avoided eye contact. It was very isolating.”
After the treatment, he said: “If I go on a Tube train or lift now I will certainly remember the virtual reality experience and I think it will be helpful in reducing any feelings of anxiety that I may have.”
There is Potential for the continued Use of VR Technology to Cure Mental Health Issues
“Virtual reality is proving extremely effective in the assessment and treatment of mental health problems,” said, Dr. Kathryn Adcock, head of neurosciences and mental health at the Medical Research Council. “This study shows the potential of its application to a major psychiatric problem.”
Brian Dow, Director of External Affairs of the charity, Rethink Mental Illness, said: “It’s exciting to see cutting-edge technology used innovatively to treat what can be an extremely frightening and disruptive symptom for some people experiencing mental illness.”