Virtual reality: a game changer for mental health treatment?

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Demand for mental health treatment in the UK far outstrips supply. And the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced many primary care services to think creatively not only about demand and supply, which has increased further during the pandemic, but also about delivery. GPs and community mental health teams in particular are thinking about more innovative ways to deliver remote support to people with mental health conditions, including the use of Telehealth and virtual reality (VR) platforms.

People are probably most familiar with VR in a digital gaming context, with devices like Oculus headsets offering immersive gaming experiences where players can place themselves “in the game”, but it has been suggested that integrating VR, alongside other telehealth options like apps and videoconferencing into mental health consultation and treatment could make counselling and alternative treatment options more accessible to those living and working remotely. Early research suggests that while discussions about investigating the benefits of this type of delivery of care have been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, researchers and practitioners were already beginning to explore how VR and Telehealth could be a tool that could be utilised more regularly in the treatment and engagement of people with mental health conditions, not just during periods where face to face contact is a challenge.

Blended treatments to help improve outcomes

Telehealth encompasses a number of different approaches and techniques, including using platforms like skype for mobile conferencing, or mobile apps to help people manage conditions and to help deliver some treatment options. It has previously been used in other areas of medicine, for example to help those with chronic conditions self-manage, with various levels of success and uptake.

One foundation embracing remote mental health support, even before the arrival of coronavirus, is Greater Manchester mental health foundation trust who use a mobile app called ClinTouch, to support people recovering from psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Although patients will typically see a care co-ordinator monthly, symptoms of a relapse can appear within days; with the app, users are asked how they feel a few times a day, and an alert is generated if a relapse looks likely.  Some NHS organisations have also adopted telepsychiatry – videoconferencing therapy sessions. 

Using VR for remote therapy almost takes telehealth a step further, and involves using a complete virtual environment, with the potential for this to be integrated into treatment plans, so clinicians can, for example, create a setting which looks like the inside of their office, or use virtual environments to model external scenarios that may cause anxiety to help patients practice coping techniques like breathing exercises.

One of the potential extended uses for VR and telehealth in a clinical mental health treatment setting which has emerged is its application for rural populations, or for people who are isolating because of exposure to coronavirus. However, this has raised some additional questions about the potential barriers to uptake exacerbated by digital illiteracy and poor access to digital devices, as well as the problem of poor or slow internet connections, something which will need to be considered by health boards if they decide to offer these treatment options.

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More research is needed, and is being done

While recent research has shown face-to-face therapy remains the optimal treatment method in mental health care, VR-based therapy has been found to be more effective than Skype-based or phone only counselling. The research also suggests VR-based Telehealth sessions could improve engagement, compared to phone only sessions and greatly reduce dropout rates for clients which in turn can support positive clinical outcomes. It appears the general consensus is that self-service, VR and automated technology, in the form of apps and notifications could support and augment healthcare professionals and help support the delivery of more traditional approaches.

The virtual reality lab at the NIHR-Wellcome Trust-King’s Clinical Research facility aims to improve the understanding of the mechanisms that play a role in the onset and maintenance of mental health problems. They use virtual reality environments to assess and develop treatments to improve the well-being of people with mental health problems.

Research is also being done on the specific reaction to young people of engaging with digitally driven treatment options. There are some suggestions that the delivery of digital interventions to support young people with mental health problems may help them to engage more, in part because they are more familiar with digital platforms and may feel more comfortable using them day-to-day, however there is also a suggestion that young people also prefer the feeling of “distance” and “impersonality” that a digital platform provides which can lead to some feeling more able to express how they are really feeling, compared to a face to face meeting with a clinician which can sometimes be a stressful and intimidating experience.

Where next?

So far in clinical psychology and psychiatry, the primary focus of VR has been its role in treating anxiety and stress-related disordersspecific phobiaspanic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. However the disruption to face to face mental health treatments caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to clinicians thinking even more creatively about the applications of VR and telehealth options to help support the treatment of people with a wider range of mental health conditions.

While it is clear that virtual treatments should not replace the face to face consultation in mental health treatment entirely, research suggests there is a growing role for VR and Telehealth options in augmenting face to face treatment options and that they could be offered as an option for those who are unable to attend face to face sessions. Telehealth and remote treatments are something which will continue to be explored beyond the coronavirus pandemic and could soon be integrated into practice as part of the standard delivery of mental health care and treatment.


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