VR’s Impact on Mental Health
As virtual reality technology continues to grow and prosper, more and more surprising discoveries are made. One of these discoveries is the positive effect that virtual reality can have on an individual’s mental health. Entertainment technology being used as a way to deal with stress, disabilities, or other problems is nothing new. For example, Kotaku reported that a doctor recommended that a man play the video game Destiny as a form of mental therapy after having multiple brain surgeries. Entertainment technology can have truly positive effects on someone’s mental state because of the immersion and distraction, but virtual reality specifically has the opportunity to take that same concept and make it even more impactful.
The issue of mental health is repeatedly brought into the attention of the public and it’s often seen as a very complicated issue, with no hopeful solutions in sight. Virtual reality could change the way we see mental health issues and offer a solid solution to a lot of problems that individuals face. VR has the capability to help people deal with trauma, phobias, and even PTSD. The norm for treating mental health issues like these is usually therapy and due to the negative stigma surrounding it, those who need it are usually reluctant to seek it out. Virtual reality treatment can break that negative stigma and can one day be known as a real solution for mental health issues. VR can do what standard therapy is unable to and simulate real life situations, allowing the individual to confront whatever traumatic experience or phobia they may have. This approach for treatment is called exposure therapy and it’s been used before without VR.
Exposure therapy has the patient confront their fear and then after some exposure, they eventually overcome it. Usually when it’s used, the psychologist has to rely on stimulating the patient’s imagination but virtual reality lets them dive deeper and create situations that would likely be too dangerous to attempt in the real world. VR could also allow them to entirely fine tune the experience, enabling them to perfectly create any phobia or situation a patient might need to confront. In an interview from the American Psychological Association, Dr. Albert Rizzo, the director for medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies states how he’s created an Iraq and Afghanistan simulation for soldiers returning with PTSD. The simulation is constantly growing and changing as feedback from what civilians and patients have gone through is offered. It now has four different variations complete with smells of diesel fuel, rotting garbage, burning rubber, and other unpleasant smells, resulting in a truly multi-sensory experience that helps returning soldiers deal with the emotional traumas they’ve faced. This virtual reality simulation aimed at mental health treatment is a testament for just how incredibly complex the environments and situations can be.
Dr. Rizzo also says that virtual reality also has the potential to lessen the negative stigma surrounding mental health treatment. He says that at first glance, most people see VR as something similar to a video game and younger people are more likely to participate in this type of treatment because it’s something they’re familiar with. They think that they can get help and maybe have a good time while doing it. The perception of therapy at a glance is seen by many as dull and it can be discouraging to those who need help. The appealing nature of VR therapy could be what gets people to go out and seek the help that they need.
Another way VR can be used to help with mental issues is as a form of pain distraction. Many studies have concluded that pain is a multisensory experience so if our senses are being immersed by something else, an individual can be distracted from the pain they would normally be feeling. An article from The Atlantic wrote about how a 61-year-old woman went under surgery and was almost completely distracted because of virtual reality. The goal of the surgery was to remove a lipoma that had formed in her leg. With surgeries like this one, the patient is usually sedated to alleviate the pain, however, in this case virtual reality was used instead. The woman had always wanted to visit the citadel of Machu Picchu and during the surgery she was finally able to do so. While the surgery was performed, she was teleported to the wondrous place she’s always wanted to visit causing her to relax and become distracted from the surgery. At the start of the surgery her blood pressure levels were a high 183/93, but as the surgery went on it fell as she became more immersed in the virtual world, proving the VR distraction as a success. This method being used could also decrease medical costs, reducing the need for sedatives and instead replacing them with an experience that can both distract and be fun for patients.
Virtual reality used in psychology can be incredibly beneficial and it’s really interesting seeing this technology implemented with the purpose of helping people. Moving forward, hopefully it catches on and becomes more common as even more studies work towards demonstrating the positive effects it can have on an individual’s mental state.