The human brain is the most complex structure in the world. This makes diagnosing mental health disorders a huge challenge. However, virtual reality may provide an unlikely alternative to current treatment for mental health disorders.
Researchers, psychologists and psychiatrists alike are hailing ‘highly-immersive’ virtual reality as a tool for treating patients suffering from conditions such as phobias and schizophrenia.
By making the real and the virtual worlds overlap, virtual reality allows patients to navigate from one universe to another so as to better cope with traumatic or anxiety-provoking situations.
Lucia Valmaggia, Professor and Director of Research in Psychology and Digital Mental Health at King’s College London says that “This technology works very well in the context of exposure techniques, where patients are exposed to high-risk situations.”
Virtual reality helps patients to develop resilience with regard to phobias, OCD, acute anxiety, addiction or eating disorders.
For example with people suffering from aerophobia, the patient is immersed in an ultra-realistic situation that reproduces the experience of a traveller, from the arrival at the airport to the landing.
The strategy is the same for eating disorders: patients with bulimia nervosa have to walk, virtually, between the shelves of a supermarket or open a refrigerator filled with products that could trigger binge eating.
Virtual reality provides an alternative treatment to drugs or electroconvulsive therapy to patients suffering from schizophrenia. Allowing them to respond to their hallucinations and confront their ‘demons’.
Alexandre Dumais, a researcher and psychiatrist at the Philippe-Pine Institute in Montreal says that “I myself am still very surprised by the therapy’s effectiveness, the results are extremely promising,” says Dumais. “Coupled with cognitive and behavioural therapy, it allows the patient to develop better coping strategies.”
Supported by a myriad of start-ups specializing in new technologies, the researcher reproduces his patients’ demon as faithfully as possible, from skin colour to the timbre of its voice, so as to allow patients to dialogue with the demon and to push it back.
However, the application of virtual reality for treating mental health disorders is far from becoming mainstream. Unfortunately, the hardware necessary for many of these therapies remains very expensive.
Also on the software side, improvements are still needed to make VR experiences more customizable. This is significant as it is vital that virtual reality treatment is as immersive as possible.
Virtual reality is also a valuable diagnostics tool…
By helping to create convincingly realistic simulations of experiences that may provoke symptoms, it needs to be done do so consistently, potentially making diagnoses more objective—or at least less subjective.
A team of researchers at Cambridge University led by Dr. Dennis Chan conducted research with the aim to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Chan’s team reported that the VR-based navigation test was more accurate in diagnosing mild Alzheimer’s-related impairment than traditional “gold-standard” cognitive tests, such as figure recall and symbol tests.
Other technologies, not just VR have their role to play as well in the treatment of mental health disorders.