Using Virtual Reality in Depression Treatment: What to Know

The Possibility of Using Virtual Reality in Depression Treatment

A joint research study by the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and the University College of London recently revealed the results of their collaboration, which dealt with the usage of virtual reality (VR) technology in the treatment of depression, a psychological illness.

The Details of the Study

Fifteen adults between the ages of 23 and 61 were made as subjects of the study. With each of them donning virtual reality headsets, they all took part in VR simulations that focused on self-compassion. It was the experiment’s aim to boost the value of self-compassion in the depressed patients. In the simulation, the patients were confronted with a crying baby, which they were directed to comfort. The VR baby would then respond to the participants’ attempts to comfort him. In the next three scenarios, the situation was reversed and the subjects were then the ones being comforted. They did this simulation, which lasted for about eight minutes, for up to three times a week. The subjects’ reactions to the simulation were then measured via a set of scales or questionnaires, such as the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9, primary outcome measure), the Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale, and the Sell-Compassion and Self-Criticism Scales.

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Virtual Reality in Depression Treatment

Most of the subjects showed improvement, and the tests revealed positive results, especially when using the PHQ-9 scale of measuring outcomes in depression treatments. These results were discovered after the completion of the VR simulations and after a four-week follow-up. While the PHQ-9 required a decrease of 5 points to be considered as a positive result, just four out of the fifteen participants showed significant improvements in their condition while nine out of ten reported a decrease in their symptoms. With the Self-Compassion and Self-Criticism Scales, their scores improved, although it’s yet to be revealed whether there was clinical significant change. Their baseline scores for self-compassion were the same as that of the average for the general population..

The VR reality headset used in the simulation was the NVisor Sx1111. Although it’s not as popular as other headsets on the market such as the HTC Vive, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, and Samsung Gear VR, it’s said to be just as reliable.

Nowadays, virtual reality is starting to be more and more popular, and its influence is starting to spread to many industries beyond just entertainment and gaming. The health sector is just one field that is learning how to take full advantage of VR in treating certain medical conditions.

Aside from treating depression and other mental health illnesses, VR can also be used for pain management and physical rehabilitation. At present, many companies have seen the value of VR and are thus investing in research on how they can fully harness the potential of VR for the benefit of the medical community. One such company is Augmedix, which now uses Google Glass to access patient data and reduce unnecessary patient-doctor interactions. Another company is MindMaze, which is using VR for the rehabilitation of brain injury victims, such as those who suffered from a stroke. Lastly, VRecover is now studying the potential of VR for the physical rehabilitation of patients with limb or back injuries.


Because only 4 out of the 15 subjects in the study showed substantial clinical improvements, the program could be further analyzed as to why only a few benefited from the test at significant levels. Such an analysis would be helpful in identifying the areas in which VR treatment would be most helpful. It can serve as a good starting point for further research about using virtual reality to treat mental health illnesses. At present, though, it is still doubtful whether it can bring about much positive impact in the treatment of depression because of its limited range.

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