Virtual Reality for Mental Health

Written ahead of Sheffield Documentary Festival, 2018, for a Wellcome session on VR and Mental Health

From treating post traumatic stress disorder to assisting with dementia, virtual reality is being taken up by health care professionals as a route towards solving some of our biggest challenges. Yet, for many people, the idea of enclosing ourselves within a claustrophobic headset, disconnected from the rest of the world, is completely inconsistent with the kinds of behaviours we should encourage to promote mental health. There is even a great deal of concern that we already exist within a culture where we are too immersed in technology.

So, what is out there and what should we be doing to square this unlikely circle where views on VR vary so widely? Our starting point may be to take a look at what is out there already. For a couple of years now, there have been a number of meditation apps for virtual reality headsets. These environments situate the user in a contemplative space, while soothing music or audio meditation guidance is provided. Equally, projects exploring what it feels like to suffer from a mental health condition — or states of ill health more widely — have provided crucial insights for those whom we might seek to encourage a greater understanding, so as to then affect policy approaches.

Already then, we can see how VR for mental health may be designed to either help people who seek to improve their circumstances, or to reach those who can influence investment into supporting people with mental health challenges. Large scale research projects are underway seeking to design healthcare solutions using VR.

Yet, despite these direct efforts to explore how VR can help promote our mental health, we might find more merit in examining VR experiences that approach things a little more widely. Consider Treehugger, a project developed by Marshmallow Laser Feast, designed to provide an understanding of the anatomy of the giant sequoia tree, the largest living organism on earth. In this case, the experience may provide some kind of therapeutic benefit, but its value may be most powerfully conveyed in how it encourages us to think differently about our environment by situating us within the biology of another species. After all, what we need especially in these times is to recognise how our own survival is intimately connected to that of other species.

A crucial message here is that VR and mental health may be best approached through the interpretive voice of artistic storytelling. Such an approach may also provide a more critical framework around the often polarised views about technological solutions.

If one dives deep into the questions surrounding the use of virtual reality for the promotion of mental health, then one arrives at a richer set of questions about the potential and value of technology to solve or alleviate humanity’s problems. Thus, VR is identified as a possible solution to a problem that cannot yet be solved by present, known methods. To this end, VR is the latest in a series of innovations which seek to improve our ability to solve something.

Yet, when framed in this manner, two schools of thought emerge about the merit of this approach. One focuses on the potential of technology to generate presently unknown ways of being in the world, which are qualitatively different from — and better than — how we do things currently. The allure of this uncertainty, combined with the likely greater efficiency of a technological system — where efficiency involves control, predictability, and being less resource heavy — permits the technological solution, or solutionism, to rise above all other propositions.

The alternative view is to recognise that technology is but one way of approaching a solution and that, at times, technology can even work towards excluding alternatives. In this sense, the best VR for mental health may be those examples which are integrated into other forms of therapeutic interventions, or which occupy a social space that is not traditionally seen as directly therapeutic.

The best medicine may not be medicine at all.

It may be art.