Although Virtual Reality is largely known for its contributions to gaming, it has proven to be a powerful tool for the mental health sector as well.

TRIGGER WARNING: mention of rape.

Virtual Reality, widely known as a gamer’s toy, is proving a beneficial, therapeutic tool in the healthcare sector. Virtual Reality Therapy uses visual immersion techniques to create an artificial experience to diagnose and treat psychological conditions.

VRT is widely known as a means to help patients through exposure therapy. It can simulate real experiences and situations in a cost-effective and targeted way, this technology allows therapists to evoke and analyze the emotions of their patients. 

The University of Bradley states, “VR can help to modify behaviors, thoughts and emotions through virtual experiences designed for and adapted to the person’s needs in order to facilitate and enhance the process of change.”

Computer-generated environments can be programmed to be highly specific in order to help people directly confront feared situations or locations that in real life may not be safe to approach. Some examples of phobias that have been aided through VRET include fear of flying, heights, driving, claustrophobia, spiders, rape and social anxiety. 

At this time, VRET studies have mostly examined PTSD Vietnam veterans. The Journal of Traumatic Stress by Rohbaum et. Al reports through VR, soldiers are immersed in a virtual environment that replicates similar imagery — such as jungles or helicopters — that they have come into contact with during combat. These studies found that VRET soldiers experienced a reduction of PTSD symptoms.

VR has also been proven to be of assistance via remote health appointments to patients who suffer from body image disorders. According to studies conducted at the University of Kent, England, traditionally in face-to-face treatments called “Mirror Exposure” body image patients have to confront their reflections. However, through a VR environment, participants instead are confronted with a virtual avatar they have customized to match their body. Participants are asked to examine each part of the avatar’s body and perform virtual adjustments to provide a rendering of their perceptions of self and their emotions associated with those images which enables a visually-based discussion with their therapist.

VR can also prove advantageous by manipulating the visual image of the care provider. This is due to the fact that the appearance of the therapist can affect the patient’s willingness to communicate. In a study for Computers in Human Behavior Volume 105, it was demonstrated that a therapist using a cartoonish avatar to present themselves created more openness between the patient and caretaker. Whereas a caretaker avatar in realistic human form inflicted a sense of judgment from the perspective of the patient. By removing this sense of judgment, it allows patients to engage and embrace medical advice more readily.

VR is proving to be a new tool within the healthcare community that reaches far beyond the imagination of the gamers who originally saw the benefits of this immersive device. Given the current pandemic, VR and healthcare may cultivate a valuable partnership providing safe and effective means to assist patients without the risks of real life exposure.

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