Technology-based mental health therapy

Virtual reality video games enable players to accomplish things they would not attempt in their daily lives, such as killing a monster, robbing a bank, starting a war or being a part of the fantasy world. With an increasing importance of technology in the society, mental health therapists are using virtual reality as a weapon in their fight against mental illness.

Technology allows a therapist to treat specific disorders by reproducing circumstances that trigger fear or uncertainty in a patient. For patients with fear of flying, it is important to expose them to the trigger by creating actual flight experiences. Virtual reality helps replicate the sound and sight of flying in a therapist’s office, facilitating guided treatment of the fear.

The method has been used in the treatment of phobias, depression and substance abuse. A patient wears a headset connected to a smartphone to enter a virtual world, which includes visual, auditory and sensory cues. For example, if a bomb explodes, the patient will feel the ground shake and may even hear people crying.

According to The Wall Street Journal, when patients are in a physically safe environment while being simultaneously exposed to virtual three-dimensional environment, they are equipped to encounter the people or situations that triggered their condition.

The virtual environment is personalized for each patient on the basis of circumstances responsible for their distress. As patients continue to participate in the virtual environment, they are able to identify and familiarize with the scenario that caused fear. Healing begins when the familiarity of the scene suppresses fear neurons in the amygdala, the area of the brain that processes fear and emotions. The patient also understands what originally happened.

JoAnn Difede, director of anxiety and traumatic stress studies at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, worked for eight weeks with a woman who was a victim of the 9/11 terror attack. The woman remained numb and non-responsive. After receiving the virtual reality therapy, she responded and began to cry and tell her story with much emotion.

The treatment for phobias is called exposure therapy. In this, patients are exposed to the source of fear in a gradually increasing manner under the guidance of a therapist who teaches new ways to respond to the fear. According to the results of a 2007 study published in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior, of the total 150 subjects, 27 percent refused to take the exposure therapy, while only 3 percent denied the virtual reality exposure therapy.

According to studies conducted by Newcastle University, U.K., virtual reality is highly effective in the treatment of anxiety and phobias in autistic children. The results were published in the journal PLOS ONE in 2014.

Emory University School of Medicine used virtual reality therapy for Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Subjects who were exposed to virtual reality stress triggers had 15–67 percent fewer symptoms at the end of the study, and these numbers remained consistent six months later.

People suffering from mental illness should never assume they cannot be treated. If you or a loved one needs assistance or would like further information, please call the 24/7 Mental Health Helpline at 855-653-8178.