The Role of Virtual Reality in the Treatment of Mental Health Disorders

Imagine yourself in a dark room walking towards an open hallway. Your heart is racing as if it’s going to explode from your chest. Your throat is dry and you can barely call out or shout for help. You need to get out from this room as quickly as possible! While you are thinking of a plan to escape, a soft calm voice is coaching you that it’s okay and you’ll be able to get out. No, you’re not imagining things. This is actually your therapist monitoring your physiological responses towards the stimulus that you are involved as of the moment. You are in a virtual reality environment and undergoing a therapy session to help your fear of dark places or achluophobia.


What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality, developed in MIT in the 1960’s, was first used in training pilots to fly planes. Later it was used in computer gaming technology where until now its gaining popularity and getting far more advanced as the year progress.

The concept of using virtual reality as therapy for some mental disorders has come a long way from its theoretical inception, to development of various simulations specific for mental conditions, testing it to specific group of patients, and up to present time where enhanced virtual environments brought about by the advances in information technology are now being considered as effective. But note that “Balancing technology use with other aspects of daily life seems reasonable, but there is a lot of conflicting advice about where that balance should be.” Christopher J. Ferguson Ph.D. in clinical psychology said.

To put it simply, virtual reality in psychiatry is the immersion of the patient to a computer generated environment creating a true-to-life experience about their mental health conditions. Guided with a professional therapist or psychiatrist, the patient will be able to face these fears and overcome them successfully.

Conditions helped by virtual reality

Two decades ago, scientists and researchers have introduced this technology to help manage anxiety disorders and phobias. Anxiety disorders and phobias like fear of open and closed spaces, heights, spiders, elevators, thunderstorms, flying, driving, and speaking in public have shown great improvements through the help of virtual reality. 

“There is also little doubt that all of the new technologies, led by the Internet, are shaping the way we think in ways obvious and subtle, deliberate and unintentional, and advantageous and detrimental.” –Jim Taylor Ph.D.

Other conditions where virtual reality is being utilized is among substance abuse disorders and addiction problems like smoking. It is also beneficial as cognitive rehabilitation among autistic adults and children to help them develop necessary skills in performing activities of daily living.

Virtual reality is also used among persons suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) like soldiers who just came from war or heavy encounter and individuals who experienced traumatic events like rape, loss of a loved one, etc.

In patients with major thought disorder like schizophrenia, virtual reality is being used to present and help patients control symptoms of paranoia, hallucinations, illusions and delusions.

Presently, research and science development has introduced the use of virtual reality technology among patients having Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and chronic pain disorders. 

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What to expect during virtual therapy session?

The therapy usually involves six to twelve treatments depending on the response of the patient in each session. An informed consent is obtained from the patient to undergo the treatment process. This will be followed by an explanation of the whole process and what to expect during the virtual reality sessions as a preparatory activity to help allay anxiety. 


The patient is then assisted to wear a head mounted display that will show a 3D visual-audio scenario, and at times can include smells and vibrations to make it more realistic. The whole system is equipped with physiological monitoring device to record the responses of the patient in terms of heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressures and even oxygen saturation. Variations in vital sign readings will indicate how well the patient is responding to the simulation. 

Simulations can be stopped if the patient can no longer tolerate and responds abnormally to the given scenario. However, it is the goal of virtual reality to help the patients overcome their fears in a controlled and safe clinical environment, thereby, an encouragement and motivation to go on until this is resolved is being carried out. This process is called desensitization.

Just like any treatment procedures, virtual therapy does not present a 100% positive response. Some patients will experience and report virtual reality induced sickness during their initial session. This is characterized by nausea, dizziness, headache, eye strain, and inability to maintain balance and coordination.

“Therapy is right for anyone who is interested in getting the most out of their life by taking responsibility, creating greater self-awareness, and working towards change in their lives.” – Chris Corbett, PsyD.

The future of virtual reality

There is an endless possibility on the use of virtual reality in psychiatry and help treat or manage mental health disorders. It is now projected that virtual reality can be useful in forensic psychiatry and crime-related situations. 


If before the patient is required to go to the medical facility where the virtual reality is set up and performed, now there are available headsets in the market where they can simply buy for personal use and have the virtual reality encounter at their own homes. Nonetheless, patients should be instructed that a clinical and controlled setting with an available professional therapist or psychiatrist is still highly recommended. This is to ensure that the sessions are done appropriately, can respond immediately to any changes that will occur during the sessions and to document treatment response of the patient. 

In the future, the therapist can monitor the patient remotely using telemedicine and will continue to observe and evaluate effectiveness of treatments while at home.


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