May is Mental Health Month, and today is the American Psychological Association’s annual Mental Health Blog Day. I’ve struggled, to varying degrees of success, with mental illness (and consequentially stigma) for pretty much my whole life. Which is why, today, I’m blogging for mental health.
Virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift will obviously revolutionize how we play videogames. But what’s even more exciting is their potential application as a therapeutic tool. Already, researchers are exploring so-called “virtual reality therapy” (VRT) as a viable treatment option for certain mental illnesses.
VRT, or more accurately virtual reality exposure therapy, dates back to the early 90s. Exposure, rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is the repeated, direct confrontation with an anxiety-provoking stimulus or situation. The primary goal of exposure is habituation to the feared stimulus.
In other words, through frequent, systematic exposure, one becomes acclimated to the feared stimulus and to the experience of anxiety itself. For this reason, exposure is the gold-standard treatment for most anxiety disorders, and is particularly successful in treating specific phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Let’s say you have a crippling fear of spiders. It’s gotten so bad that you’re afraid to leave your house, lest you come across one. Your therapist (if she’s any good) would recommend exposure therapy. You’d start small (“look at spider”) and work your way up (“let spider crawl on me”). Eventually, you wouldn’t be scared of spiders anymore.
Ideally, exposure therapy is done in person (or in vivo). But there are situations when in vivo exposure is just too expensive, impractical, or both. Imagine if, instead of spiders, you had a phobia of flying. It’s not exactly feasible to purchase dozens of round-trip plane tickets for your therapy.
This is where virtual reality exposure therapy shines. It is vastly more practical and affordable to immerse someone in, say, a flight simulator. And studies have found that exposure therapy in virtual reality is just as effective as in real life. Not surprisingly, the better, or “more real,” the virtual reality is, the better the results.
That is why psychologists are so excited by the latest developments in VR technology. “I have no question that Oculus will revolutionize virtual reality for clinical purposes,” says Dr. Albert Rizzo, a research scientist at the University of California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT).
Dr. Rizzo previously created war simulation programs, Full Spectrum Warrior and Virtual Iraq, for the treatment of returning veterans with combat-related PTSD. A study of Virtual Iraq found that it helped 70% of those with PTSD in the process of recovering from their trauma.
Up until now, there’s been limited research on VRT, due largely to the high cost of equipment. But Oculus Rift is relatively inexpensive and easy to develop on, as well as boasting unprecedented realism and immersive capabilities. According to Rizzo, “This has the capacity to turn virtual reality [therapy] into a mass market treatment.”
At the moment, VRT is a therapeutic tool with specific uses, primarily the treatment of anxiety disorders such as PTSD and phobias. But what if, in the not-too-distant future, virtual reality therapy were as commonplace as self-help books are today? VR gaming is just the beginning.