By Kate Thayer/Chicago Tribune
Researchers have found virtual reality (VR) exercises can help alleviate a fear of heights, showing the technology can be used as an accessible, affordable tool in mental health treatment.
The study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal, was the first to use virtual reality without a therapist – a concept researchers say could be the future of mental health treatment for a variety of problems.
“Immersive virtual reality therapies that do not need a therapist have the potential to dramatically increase access to psychological interventions,” lead author, University of Oxford professor Daniel Freeman, said in a statement. “We need a greater number of skilled therapists, not fewer, but to meet the large demand for mental health treatment we also require powerful technological solutions.”
The study examined 100 people with a clinically diagnosed fear of heights, randomly assigning 49 of them the virtual reality treatment and the rest a more typical treatment. The participants answered questions on the severity of their fear at the start of the trial, at the end of the two-week treatment and then during a follow-up after four weeks.
The virtual reality treatment involved six, 30-minute sessions where participants would wear a virtual reality headset to enter a simulated world that challenged their fear in varying degrees, like walking out on a platform overlooking a large drop or rescuing a cat from a tree.
Most of the participants assigned the treatment completed the full course, researchers said. Of those, the authors of the study heard feedback that the virtual reality experiences helped, with participants saying they were less anxious when they looked over edges or otherwise encountered heights in their lives.
However, the researchers noted they do not have long-term data on the participants in the study, which was completed earlier this year. It’s also unclear if virtual reality could be beneficial for those with mental health issues outside of phobias or anxiety, researchers said.
Virtual reality is used by therapists to treat a number of conditions. At the AMITA Health Behavioural Medicine Institute in the northwest suburbs, therapist Patrick McGrath has been using the technology for several years.
His clients use virtual reality to overcome phobias, including a fear of heights, anxiety issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug, alcohol and smoking addictions. McGrath said the concept uses a typical “face your fear” treatment theory, but in a safe setting.
Virtual reality allows someone to safely confront a fearful situation, like a war setting for a veteran, or standing atop a dangerously tall building for someone afraid of heights, McGrath said. In virtual reality, “we can do all that kinds of stuff and slowly acclimate people.”
“The goal of the therapy is to help people learn to live with their discomforts,” he added.
To do this, McGrath uses the virtual reality headset to create a situation and also incorporates noises and smells to set the scene.
“I can put you in a virtual auditorium and have you give a speech,” he said. “I can walk them into a gas station and teach them that ... doesn’t mean they have to get gas while there.”
Through exposure to the fear, or through temptation for their addiction, people can learn to overcome and live with whatever they’re dealing with, McGrath said.
“These things are very treatable,” he said, adding that is even more the case with the availability of virtual reality. “You can just slip your phone into a visor.”
“My goal is to teach people that they can face their fears,” he said. Many “don’t need medication and years of talk therapy.” – Tribune News Service
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