Virtual Reality As a Mental Health Therapy Platform

In healthcare, Virtual Reality (VR) is often referred to one of 3 types of systems: a VR environment presented on a flat screen, a head-mounted display and a room-based system such as CAVE. Although all three systems are very different, they have one common feature - the ability to introduce stereoscopic depth that creates the illusion that all objects we see exist in a virtual space. It leads to the VR use as a research tool and its broad application to psychotherapy, sports psychology and social interaction.

Mental disorder is a typically occurring phenomenon in the United States and worldwide. As outlined by The Kim Foundation, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans aged 18 and older (about one in four adults) suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder every year.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that at least 40 million people in the U.S. are affected by anxiety disorders and cost the country $42 billion per year. Serious mental illnesses cost America $193.2 billion in lost earnings and $467 billion in lost productivity per year. Globally, mental disorders cost $2.5 trillion per year in medical expenses.

Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults aged 18–44, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Is Virtual Reality (VR) able to help overcome consequences of mental illnesses and disorders?

Past decades proved virtual reality (VR) to be an effective therapeutic tool for facilitating virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) in a careful way. High cost and lack of appropriate technology caused its limited availability in the past. Another edge of the sword is a lack of educational campaigns aiming to give higher qualifications to family physicians and mental health practitioners. Nevertheless, there are some highly recommended techniques to combat anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These techniques are called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy (ET).

A crucial challenge for virtual reality treatment platform to be implemented is the lack of clinical evidence demonstrating the cases and methodology of how VR can provide an effective treatment both in clinics and remotely.

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In a gist, CBT is a type of treatment practiced by therapists specialized in mental health disorders. The course of such a treatment generally encourages patients to attend a certain number of proceedings centered on a particular problem. Consequently, a patient can identify, recognize and deal with feelings and emotions that are leading to negative and subversive perceptions and views.

In the early 1990s, virtual reality started to widely apply prolonged exposure therapy (PET) for PTSD to treat veterans and soldiers. As with PTSD, VR therapy has been used in medical institutions to cure various phobias and anxiety disorders for many years.

The mental health treatment domain has been deeply rooted during the decades of scientific research. However, this realm is still in its infanthood as progress in science and technology has not moved forward enough to treat enormous amounts of patients around the world. As a result, many healthcare providers are thriving to work out appropriate clinical tools for professional therapists to treat patients with mental illnesses.

Mobile VR headsets such as Samsung Gear VR are becoming more affordable for the average user today and open up new opportunities to apply telehealth to decentralize mental health treatment and reach more patients. Experts are expecting a flood of VR applications in the months and years to come; most of these apps will be targeting people with mental disorders. VR is a perfect supplementary tool to enable remote teletherapy by qualified Ivy-League practitioners, as it helps modify behaviors, thoughts and emotions through virtual experiences adapted to each particular patient's needs.

According to an article published in Computational and Mathematical Methods in Medicine, "the most apparent advantage of VR is the ability to present stimuli in three dimensions". When it comes to VR application to neuropsychology, virtual environments serve as "the ultimate Skinner box" able to present several complex stimulus conditions that would be impossible to control in the real world. In clinical research VR apps are used to create different complex scenarios such as exposure to a phobic stimulus that allows for manipulation with absolute precision. When undergoing VR therapy, patients respond to pertinent stimuli while immersed in a larger controllable virtual environment.

VR technology is able to overcome many limitations of traditional experimental methods by allowing for precise control of the spatial light distribution in the visual scene as well as stimuli position and distance. With VR, doctors are able to manipulate objects in 3D in order to examine positive and negative parallax effects on patients. Such level of control is very useful when medical researchers examine color perception or such phenomena as color contrast.

Some of the existing VR solutions for PTSD are based on the principle of the eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) that makes a patient recall a traumatic memory while following a moving object with their eyes at the same time. Such a dual activity leads traumatic memory to become less clear and vivid for the patient.

Today, most of VR therapy solutions are built by specialist MedTech providers and may cost healthcare providers a fortune to build, install and implement. Smaller app development companies willing to build VR solutions for mental illnesses should first and foremost demonstrate clinical efficacy if they want to penetrate this specific niche.

We're about to publish a list of the most cutting-edge VR apps that are effective for exposure therapies and stress relief, feel free to follow us in Twitter and LinkedIn to stay tuned!

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