Virtual reality and mental health

How can VR/AR help people with mental illness?

Allison Steen 2014 ©

A big part of therapy is learning proper coping skills for all of the weirdness your brain throws at you. A lot of the time this means you need to pay someone professionally trained in brain weirdness to help you process and cope with the reasons why dropping your last cosmic brownie on the floor was justification enough to cry like you’d just lost your first born child.

Usually this process takes no small amount of time and effort. Involving driving or taking the bus to an office, figuring out if said therapist is even covered by your health insurance, filling potential prescriptions, finding out if they have any open slots and then finally fitting them into your already stretched budget. Wow ,that’s exhausting, and for someone struggling with depression maybe it’s just too much to handle. So how can we make this process easier and more of an option for people?

There are already online therapy services like 7 ups of tea and talkspace that offer virtual skype sessions and text based sessions. These are marketed as more casual and accessible for people who can wait for their doctor to respond or who need a quick pick me up. But these online services have issues such as privacy, lack of eye contact, and how effective they are for patients who need more in depth treatment.

With Virtual Reality technology we can fill in the gaps left by online therapy. For people with mental illnesses who can;t afford to take time off work to go to an office or who need more personalization to their therapy an in home VR system could be the answer. VR is already being used in an experimental capacity to help treat people with severe phobias, though the programs currently developed haven’t been designed with any input from professional psychologists.

Let’s say a patient is at home and has a therapy appointment scheduled, they go into their living room, put on their VR headset and log in to their patient portal [maybe this is done through their insurance company to take car of costs and to work around HIIPA violations]. Across town, their therapist puts on their VR headset and logs in as well, starting their session. The two of them are sitting in a virtual room with comfy chairs, exactly what a therapists office might actually look like, but that could be reprogrammed to look differently. The therapist and patient can now make eye contact, and have the appearance of being together in a room to talk. The VR headset could also have extensions built in that are controlled by the therapist to help patients work through traumatic memories by reliving them in a carefully controlled and safe environment. If say, the patient were to use the arachnophobia VR program and they started to feel nervous or upset, the therapist could then disable the program and turn on a setting that transformed the room into a more comfortable or familiar space for their patient to recover and talk. This kind of technology could also be used to help people with social anxiety or stage fright, and could run simulations where they try to speak in front of a crowd in order to practice.

Smaller and more portable VR machines could also be incorporated into this kind of new therapy program. Let’s say a patient has severe social anxiety and just finished working through a few sessions where they approached a crowd of people in VR and began speaking to them. They are going on a group trip with a bunch of strangers overseas and must interact in order to make friends. They received a google cardboard in the mail and downloaded an app on their phone provided by their therapist and insurance provider. The app is a less immersive version of the VR simulation that reminds them of key coping mechanisms and ways to help them feel comfortable when approaching groups of new people. They practice with their google cardboard on the bus ride and are able to make some new friends because of the practice they had and the confidence it gave them.

Right now, VR systems are very expensive and require lots of processing power, so a full fledged, at home VR experience as an alternative to in-person therapy might be a little while off. But therapists and doctors could definitely incorporate AR with google cardboard into helping patients like in the example above.

A good place to start testing this would be at universities in their psychology departments or even in computer science and UI development schools. Students could work together to develop good apps and more practical ways for AR to be applied to real-time situations. They would also be able to conduct research and surveys to test the effectiveness and response to these products.

Technology is evolving so rapidly, it would be great to turn the focus of these amazing virtual reality advances from gaming to helping people better interact and exist in their real lives. If we keep applying our new tech to solving and fixing already existing problems, we could make the world a more efficient and comfortable place for many people to live in, and maybe someday therapy or getting mental health treatment wont be such a stigma or burden since it can be done from the ease and comfort of ones own home.

Here are some links to article or products I referenced or that are related to this topic. I think this kind of technology would be a huge asset, if anyone would like to talk more about this or maybe work on it together comment or shoot me a PM!