2016 became the year of mental health awareness, with mental illness no longer the secret illness, and everyone is now openly talking about it. Prince Harry, notably, came forward to talk about his own experiences following the death of his mother and he recently hosted an event for Heads Together, a mental health charity, where he advocated talking openly about the things which bother us.
VR has already been used as part of exposure therapy by replicating real life scenarios which enable users to face their fears within the simulated environment. For example, someone with a crippling fear of heights would be able to enter an experience on an aeroplane, having to watch from the window as the ground moves away from them. If their fear becomes too much, all they have to do is remove the headset, take the time they need to recover and try again.
By replicating certain scenarios, users can be placed within environments that could otherwise make them uncomfortable, like someone with Autism having to use public transport. By being present for long enough to realise that their concern was unnecessary (because nothing came of the situation they dreaded), it reassures their safety and reminds them they have the power to manage.
VR can benefit patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Adapting VR software to offer eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (DMDR), an existing treatment for PTSD, could help improve the current reprocessing system. The standard process asks a patient to describe something traumatic or disturbing that has happened to them while simultaneously following a moving object with their eyes. By requiring multitasking, the memory recalled and the concentration involved in directing sight softens the focus on the difficult recollection, potentially making it less vivid and therefore less traumatic.
We think VR can be a force for good in treating one of the top five chronic diseases of the modern age. Our cognitive scientist has already started to write our first program so watch this space for announcements...