Virtual Reality Glasses May Soon Transform The Treatment of Depression and Other Mental Illnesses
Doctors are making use of Virtual Reality technology to treat psychological conditions, including phobias, depression, and even pain.
How Virtual Reality Works
Whilst some methods involve wearing bulky headsets, similar to the one tested out by Barack Obama at a technology fair in Germany last week, other newer techniques have the ability to transform entire rooms so that patients see, hear and feel like they are in another world.
Virtual reality therapy makes use of special computers to create an environment that mimics real-life situations. This is presented to the viewer through projectors, either tiny ones that patients see through a headset, or large projections on to the walls of a room.
VR in Mental Healthcare
The idea behind this is that, by gradually exposing patients to the thing causing their symptoms, the patients become desensitized to it.
In the case of mental illnesses, they can then be guided through conventional talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), in order to develop coping strategies.
A number of mental disorders such as phobias can already be treated by exposing patients to perceived hazards. Conventional techniques can however overwhelm patients.
With the use of virtual reality therapy, the therapist is able to control how much ‘exposure’ there is at any point in time, and in some cases, even experience the virtual reality alongside the patient, which is thought to provide more effective treatment.
If, for instance, someone has a fear of pigeons, they could wear a VR headset projecting a pigeon in the distance, as the therapist talks them through their feelings. More and more pigeons would then be introduced in later sessions, until the patient can tolerate a flock.
This could be a lot more effective, compared to conventional therapy where patients may be shown pictures and then eventually a real pigeon.
It is believed that virtual reality makes exposure therapy faster. And due to the fact that virtual reality is not real, something the patients themselves are aware of, there is little risk of them developing a full-blown panic attack.
Attempts at Using VR in Mental Healthcare
Researchers at University College London, earlier this year, tested the therapy on patients with depression, the aim being, to train them to be less self-critical, believed to be a key issue in depression.
Patients were first confronted, in virtual reality, with a crying child they were told to comfort. Roles were then switched as they became the crying child, while the recording of themselves in the earlier supportive role was replayed. The idea behind this was to teach patients how to show and receive compassion, so that they could start to show it towards themselves. Nine of the 15 patients claimed their depression improved according to the British Journal of Psychiatry Open reported.
This approach, of course, addresses only a single aspect of being depressed, but for some people who have self-criticism as their biggest issue, virtual therapy might be all that’s needed, according to lead researcher Chris Brewin, a professor of clinical psychology at UCL. He adds that, “Self-criticism is a problem in many psychological problems, including eating disorders.”
Paul Sharkey, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, says that a particularly promising area is pain distraction.
Patients who would otherwise experience a significant amount of pain, such as when having wound dressings changed, could be immersed in a virtual reality experience that makes them no longer aware of the pain, he says.