Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy has been around for more than 20 years, but technological limitations and cost have stopped it from becoming widely available. That said, the advent of affordable mobile headsets means there are new opportunities to decentralize mental health treatment, and for it in turn to reach the masses. The current lack of clinical data, and how developers go about creating medically reliable experiences moving forward, will undoubtedly prove to be VR’s biggest challenge from a health perspective, though more and more studies are coming to light.
Earlier this year, for example, University College London and the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies published an academic paper that suggested VR therapy could reduce depressive symptoms by boosting feelings of self-compassion. In three weekly, 8-minute sessions, the pilot study examined 15 adults with depression, aged between 23 and 61, who used virtual reality headsets to see from the perspective of a life-sized avatar. The process of “embodiment” where the human brain is tricked into believing what it’s seeing is in fact under its own control was the focus. In the VR session, patients were asked to express compassion towards a distressed child.
Once successfully calming the infant, the patients then embodied the child itself and were made to listen to the adult avatar repeating their previously recorded compassion back to them. One month later, nine patients reported reduced symptoms of depression, while four experienced “a clinically significant drop in depression severity” as a result of the therapy. Some patients even said they were less self-critical in real-life situations afterwards.
Now, 15 people is by no means a large sample, and, as this particular study operated without a control group, its findings are still very preliminary. Nevertheless, self-criticism is often a central tenet of depression; with that in mind, this study does offer hope for future VR therapy-related research.
For VR to successfully treat the likes of depression and anxiety, it’ll need the appropriate medical backing. But the leaps and bounds the technology is already making suggests that virtual reality will be far more than just a video game peripheral in the future — it could just make a significant impact on the world of therapy.