Virtual Reality transforms treatment for mental illness


This article was written from research conducted for the What U Don’t See project which explores mental health challenges for millennials.

Virtual reality is most often associated with the gaming community as a way of creating an interactive gaming experience. But virtual reality has other benefits that most people aren’t aware of.

Virtual reality can be used to help individuals with anxiety or post traumatic stress disorders. It’s known as a form of “cyberpsychology,” which is exposing an individual to a psychological trigger to determine what sets off the anxiety. This helps determine an appropriate treatment plan for the patient.

The Canadian Mental Health Association says that 49 per cent of those with mental illness refuse to see a doctor. Most are either ashamed to admit they have anxiety for fear of being stigmatized, or don’t want to be treated with prescription drugs.

What goes into the process of using virtual reality as therapy?

Serge Larouche is a psychologist working with Quebec doctor Stephane Bouchard at the University of Quebec to show the benefits of virtual reality as treatment.

“Virtual reality exposure is a very useful and efficient tool. It allows the exposure to be under total control of the client and the therapist, as frequently as needed,” says Larouche.

Most virtual reality treatments are beneficial because they are short term and cost effective.

If the treatment is prescribed by a psychiatrist, virtual reality treatments would be covered by OHIP. The average cost of a good quality virtual reality headset, such as Oculus, is around $1200 to $1500.

“The benefits are also practical, for example, setting up a session for social anxiety is not always easy but it is much easier in virtual reality, where you can control the context of the hierarchy of exposure,” says Larouche.

While most virtual reality therapy exposure puts the user directly into a flashback, such as war, it can be used for single phobias ranging from snakes, dogs, heights, flying, and even has exposure therapy for pathological gambling.

Anxiety and PTSD are crippling mental illnesses that disrupt the daily lives of many individuals. Virtual reality offers an alternate form of treatment.

This form of therapy is continuously being tested and has shown many positive results. The main benefit of virtual reality is the positive outcome of the patients.

“It is very gratifying to see patients overcome their difficulties quickly and to sometimes see those benefits generalize to other areas of life,” says Larouche.