Although VR technology is more popular in the gaming and entertaining industries, its application in the health industry albeit, still relatively young can be very useful especially in the treatment of mental health issues
It is also a fact that we can no longer separate the environment from mental health issues, and as such through virtual reality, patients can be taught on how they can be able to overcome their mental disorders – particularly PTSD. By making them re-experience the events of the trauma scenario in a virtual world repeatedly, patients can learn how to lead normal lives after a traumatic event.
Before going further into the main theme of this article, let us see the definition of virtual reality as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual Reality (VR) involves the use of a computer to generate three-dimensional images or environment that can be interacted with and explored in certain ways like manipulating objects or performing a series of actions. This interaction involves the use of special electronic equipment such as a helmet with a screen inside. Other tools for VR include but are not limited to the following: VR headsets, omni-directional treadmills and gloves with sensors. All these work together in order to create the illusion of reality to the user.
What is PTSD?
Post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a mental health condition that is developed as a result of an individual’s placement in a situation of intense stress or after experiencing a very-high traumatic event. An example is a soldier who has suffered PTSD due to his involvement in frontline duty in the army or someone suffering as a result of the after effects of a major disaster.
There are key factors that affect the development of PTSD in individuals such as the intensity and/or duration of the traumatic event, the age or gender of the individual, stress as well as previous trauma exposure.
Virtual Reality and Mental Health
In virtual reality therapy for PTSD, the patient is made to wear a VR headgear such as a headset; and is then exposed to a virtual environment with a simulation of the source of their disorder. As the patient is repeatedly exposed to the source of the disorder, over time they begin to cope and adapt, and finally become less threatened by the trauma memories. Through this process, the patient learns new ways of thinking and behaving to positively affect his/her life.
The focus of this article is on the latest innovations in virtual reality therapy and PTSD; and as such, we’ll be looking at two of the most recent methods of virtual reality therapy. Although there are various methods for treating mental health problems like CBT (Cognitive Based Therapy), Prolonged Exposure Therapy is one of the most effective of the CBT methods – and that is a reason why it is applied in VR therapy. VR exposure-based therapy or VRET is one of the virtual reality therapy methods that can be used in treating mental disorders including PTSD, another method is VR based on EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). We are going to look more on these two methods shortly.
Exposure based therapy is a treatment method for mental disorders in which the patient is guided by a trained therapist to confront their trauma memories by repeatedly making the patient relive the scenario of the trauma experience. The aim of exposure-based therapy is not eliminate the traumatic memories, but to eliminate the associated stress.
University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) under the leadership of Albert “Skip” Rizzo and Amo Hartholt have come up with a technology called “Bravemind.”
Bravemind is an exposure-based therapy software designed for the treatment of PTSD in army veterans and ex-servicemen. This software can be found in more than 60 sites, including VA (Veteran Affairs) hospitals, university centers and in military bases. Clinical psychologist and Director of Medical Virtual Reality, Albert Rizzo developed Bravemind as an immersive, interactive, military simulation for relieving military servicemen with PTSD.
Other VR technologies developed by Albert Rizzo include 2 virtual humans VITA and SimCoach. VITA which stands for Vocational Interview Training Agent is a virtual human to assist high-functioning individuals with autism through the process of a challenging job interview.
SimCoach on the other hand is more suited to this article as it is a virtual human with the experiences of military veterans which allows soldiers having PTSD to deal with stress in a safe and anonymous manner.
Beyond Care PTSD
For the second virtual reality therapy method, we’ll take a look at EMDR. EMDR is another psychotherapy method used in the treatment of PTSD. It involves allowing the patient to recall a trauma memory, while simultaneously following a moving object with their eyes. This multi-tasking of the eye and memory results in the trauma memory to become less clear.
After repeating the process multiple times, the patient becomes unaffected by the memory as it can no longer stimulate such extreme emotional responses (behaviours) as before. A company, Beyond Care has developed a technology using EMDR for the treatment of PTSD. Their new VR desensitization and reprocessing therapy called Beyond Care PTSD is still new in the industry, but is proven to produce good results in patients suffering from PTSD.
Firsthand Technology is another health care company and an industry leader in VR for healthcare. Through its Deepstream VR system, they aim to help improve the physical and mental wellbeing of patients. Through the Deepstream VR therapies, bio-sensors are used to detect a patient’s physical and emotional condition, and by using gaming as an approach, short term chronic pain as well as anxiety and mental illness can be alleviated. The Deepstream VR system includes a Deepstreem 3D viewer, which is a low-cost, highly-immersive and comfortable VR viewer that can be used with tablet PCs and laptops.
Although much progress is still going on in the Virtual Reality technology world, its use in the treatment of mental health problems (especially PTSD) is in many ways far from the stage where it can be accessed worldwide.
Despite the falling costs in the price of VR equipment and continued innovations, it is still quite expensive to get for instance the Bravemind software, and much work needs to be done in order to fully utilize the power of VR in the treatment of mental disorders.