VR mental health care

Virtual reality is shaping the landscape of mental health care

How is virtual reality shaping the landscape of mental health care?

Virtual reality has become a more dynamic means to care for individuals suffering from mental health disorders. It not only complements traditional therapeutic approaches and core mental health processes;  it also holds the hope of providing support to diagnostic evaluations of mental health disorders.

On March 30th, 2020, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a memorandum regarding telehealth services and the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Health care providers, like those in mental health services, could exercise their profession with the support of popular applications like Apple FaceTime or Skype. This step by the HHS, although temporal as it last stood, foretells changes occurring in the realm of patient care and therapy approaches. While traditional therapy has provided a myriad of benefits in diagnosing and treating individuals suffering from mental health issues, other therapies including virtual technology may prove even more conducive to improving care services, reinforcing patient-therapist relationships and supporting clinical diagnoses.  

Virtual reality therapy fosters core mental health care processes

Virtual reality (VR) therapy can serve as a dynamic means to strengthen core processes in various clinical domains. In its most basic presentation, VR therapy addresses five lines of approach, from exposure and distraction to motivation, measurement and engagement. For example, in a study by Mühlberger et al., investigators explored the impact of repeated exposure of flight phobics to flights in virtual reality. Fear reports and physiological fear reactions, including heart rate and skin conductance level, as well as pre- and post-psychometric assessments of fear of flying revealed that VR exposure contributed to a greater reduction in fear when compared to relaxation training. While both types of therapy did diminish the effect of aviophobia in patients, several outcome measures demonstrated more auspicious effects in those who underwent VR exposure. 

Similarly, results reported in a separate investigation in the Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking Journal underscored the potential benefits of VR therapy as adjunctive therapy.  Wiederhold et al. employed virtual reality distraction techniques in a cohort of patients suffering from chronic pain. Real-time physiological monitoring and self-reported assessments suggested that the use of VR technology both minimized pain and neutralized the interruptive nature associated with such pain. 

VR traditional therapeutic

Virtual therapy underpins traditional therapeutic approaches

Virtual therapy does not have to substitute traditional therapy; classic therapeutic approaches may be necessary for more severe cases of mental health issues. Nonetheless, where traditional therapy falls short in convenience or expenses, virtual therapy provides the opportunity for mental health professionals to deliver care regardless of circumstances and maintain contact with patients.  This observation is especially more evident now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Director-General of the World Health Organization Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently stated that current times have elicited a serious concern for people’s mental health. Social isolation, fear of contagion, loss of relatives or income, and professional uncertainty are risk factors that may contribute to mental health deterioration. Further, traditional therapy is not viable in many places due to the risk of transmission or government-imposed lockdowns. Virtual therapy, however, affords individuals treatment sessions with psychologists and therapists from within the comfort and security of a home. Individuals receive high-quality treatment and mental health professionals continue to foster a connection with their patients, the pandemic notwithstanding.  

Virtual Reality Alzheimer

Virtual reality could support diagnostic assessments of mental health disorders

While more validated measurements are needed, employing virtual reality technology could support mental health professionals in their clinical diagnostic assessments of mental health disorders like schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease. Recent studies investigating the usage of VR therapies in mental health diagnoses have shown interesting findings. 

For example, in one leading study by Słowiński, Alderisio, Zhai, et al., published in Nature Partner Journals (NPJ) Schizophrenia, investigators used personalized computer avatars or humanoid robots to carry out a “mirror-game”, in which subjects were asked to mimic movements from those artificial agents. These agents were directed by a cognitive architecture based on a feedback-control theory modelling of perception-action behavior. Final results revealed that such usage of virtual technology could detect markers of schizophrenia and serve as a decision support tool in moments of diagnostic uncertainty. 

The usage of virtual technology has taken a more prevailing face to the challenges that have arisen in the mental health industry during recent years. Lockdowns, as well as a growing demand for more patient-centered approaches and clinical decision-making support tools are just a few examples. As studies continue to support the efficacy of integrating such technology in therapeutic approaches, both patients and mental health professionals could look towards a more promising future.

 

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