3 ways to use Virtual Reality in the management of Mental Health issues

Published on 04 April 2023 Read 25 min

Virtual reality (VR) refers to a computer-generated 3D environment that a person can experience and interact with using specific electronic devices, obtaining the illusion of a continuous reality. A VR headset transports the user in a constructed reality, which is made even more immersive by using proper sound equipment and different controllers that users can employ to effectively influence their virtual surroundings. Applications for virtual reality can be found in almost any sector, providing a variety of possible benefits, from educational scenarios to purely fantastic video games. In this article, Alcimed has identified 3 great examples to demonstrate that VR can be an incredibly positive and powerful tool to ameliorate and treat mental health issues.

Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET): a VR application to support the treatment of mental health patients

Virtual reality therapy could make therapy sessions even more effective than traditional ones

Since virtual reality can offer remote sessions in both semi-realistic and fictitious scenarios, a first step towards implementing VR in mental health treatment was envisioned in using it for counselling, exploiting the possible different environments for the benefit of the treatment itself. A recent study also suggests that virtual reality exposure therapy could be further enhanced by using realistic motion capture avatars, which could make therapy sessions even more effective than traditional ones.

A key example is XRHealth, a company that offers treatment for several conditions (among which: anxiety, depression, stress management…) fully delivered in VR. Sessions of virtual reality are hosted by healthcare professionals, who can guide the patient through various activities, from FDA registered mini games to group sessions. While the former are tailored to help with specific conditions, the latter introduce a social component, letting participants share their experiences, discuss fears and difficulties and provide their own coping strategies to support others.

The National Mental Health Innovation Center is using virtual reality to help people fight their phobias by providing a gradual exposure therapy in a virtual environment, helping them to get acquainted and progressively more comfortable in situations they are afraid of.

VR videogames: immersive experiences for mental health management

Some video games have already been developed specifically to help with the treatment of mental pathologies

Videogames in general are a fast growing market – expected to grow over half a trillion USD by 2030 [1]  – and one where VR is showing to make an increasingly great impact. Furthermore, some videogames have already been developed specifically to help with the treatment of mental pathologies; for example, EndeavorRx has been cleared by the FDA to treat ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). As videogame popularity is steadily increasing year after year, development of games specifically tailored to support the treatment of mental health should benefit from this dynamic.

A current example for mental health is Deep, a virtual reality game focused on meditation. Deep immerses the player in a serene underwater world that can be navigated and interacted with through the player’s breathing, offering an experience specifically devised to soothe and relieve stress and anxiety. The game has also been featured in several scientific publications and in a randomized controlled trial, showing promising evidence for the treatment of anxiety.

Furthermore, videogames are a powerful tool to raise awareness around mental issues. Just like cinema, videogames can first of all portray characters affected by mental issues, but what videogames can offer more compared to other forms of art is the ability to let the player actively control the affected character. One such example is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (available as a VR game), which is a fantasy action game that puts the player in the shoes of Senua, a girl affected by a severe form of psychosis.

Mental Health in the metaverse: the evolution of virtual reality experiences to the next level

The metaverse is a whole digital universe that begins with virtual reality but is much more than a simple program; it is thought to represent the framework to build the next evolution of the world wide web, the “Web 3.0”. Several scientific publications are already exploring the possibilities that this virtual universe can offer to the management of mental health, while some companies have already started working on useful applications within the metaverse.

The first huge aspect that the metaverse introduces is the social element, as it allows people to gather and come together in a virtual environment. Not only group sessions with therapists are possible, but as the metaverse expands, a seemingly infinite plethora of activities will be available, which could be mediated by mental health professionals or experienced alone or in groups. For example, immersive spaces to practice meditation and yoga are already rising, and some companies have started to even develop virtual mental health clinics, which can be visited for VR counselling and therapy – paid for using cryptocurrencies.

To conclude, virtual reality is already showing valid and promising results for the management of mental health, and it is only expected to become even more relevant in the future – particularly because pharmaceutical companies are starting to invest in the field. For VR to provide its biggest benefits, mental health professionals will play a pivotal role in tailoring and catalyzing specific experiences. While it will not completely replace the importance of face-to-face interactions – at least in the near future – VR will provide new and effective methods to add a layer in the management of mental health issues.
You want to explore possible applications and the future impact of VR? Or want to exploit VR to develop dynamic and immersive new ways to involve people around mental health conditions? Alcimed can support you! Don’t hesitate to contact our team!

[1] Video Game Market Size & Share Growth Report, 2030.

About the authors, 

Lorenzo, Consultant in the Alcimed’s Healthcare team in Italy
Giuseppe, Business & Project Manager in the Alcimed’s Healthcare team in Italy

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