a man wearing VR goggles in a hospital bed

One in five US adults suffers from a mental illness each year. That’s close to fifty million people. One in twenty-five US adults, or close to twelve million people, experience a serious mental illness each year, i.e. something that significantly affects their capabilities to function in society. Mental illness is something that affects so many people that it cannot be ignored and certainly shouldn’t be stigmatized.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the ways to help people suffering from mental disorders. CBT wants to challenge and eventually change a patient’s hurtful thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, while improving their capability to control their emotions, as well as teaching them coping mechanisms for stressful situations.

Related to CBT is exposure therapy, where patients are gradually exposed to their fear so they eventually become desensitized to it. Exposure therapy is particularly useful for anxiety disorders, but it’s not always practical to perform. For example, treating someone with agoraphobia (fear of crowds) requires the patient to go somewhere busy. This is time-consuming, risks doctor-patient confidentiality, and it can introduce unwelcome variables outside of everyone’s control.

It should then come as no surprise that doctors and therapists have been using some form of virtual reality as therapy to treat their patients for decades already. Creating a virtual simulation, however, used to cost tens of thousands of dollars. Nowadays, consumer headsets such as the Oculus Quest, which only cost a few hundred dollars, have made VR therapy a much more viable option for mental health therapy.

a cat on a high tree in VR to treat fear of heights

It has become much less expensive to create a VR app like this

Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) is inexpensive, private, and gives therapists control over the simulation that they put their patients in. Oing & Prescott (2018) conducted a meta-analysis of all studies that examined the benefits of VRET when compared to traditional forms of therapy, and noted that the majority of studies report positive findings for VRET, despite the technology’s limitations.

The researchers concluded their study by saying that “VR technology as a whole needs to improve to provide a completely immersive and interactive experience that is capable of blurring the lines between the real and virtual world.” Considering the rate of progress of VR technology, the benefits of VR for therapy will only grow stronger over time.

A 2017 study, conducted by Bouchard et al. and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, concluded that VRET was more effective than exposure therapy on their primary outcome measure for social anxiety disorders (SAD). The improvements maintained when the researchers followed up six months after, too. Given that VRET is much more practical for therapists and less stressful for patients, VR exposure therapy might eventually become the preferred option over real-world exposure therapy.

Another, more recent study on patients with severe, generalized SAD (2019) suggested that VR CBT was effective in reducing anxiety and depression, while also increasing the quality of life for patients. Other studies have shown that VR can also help improve the social-cognitive skills for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as veterans with post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), and people suffering from claustrophobia, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, or even schizophrenia

a plate of food in VR to treat eating disorders

A VR app designed to treat eating disorders

The reason why VR therapy seems to be such an effective way to treat mental health patients is because people will react to fear cues even if they logically know that they’re in an environment that’s not real. This is because the limbic system, i.e. the brain’s emotional command center, responds much faster to stressors than the thinking, logical part of our brain.

While much more research needs to be done before VR can replace traditional therapies such as CBT and exposure therapy, the technology has already proven itself to be a cost-effective, easy-to-use addition to help people recover from mental health illnesses.

OneBonsai provides VR solutions for the healthcare industry, from the training of medical personnel to pre-surgery analysis to helping patients rehabilitate. If you’re a healthcare professional and would like to understand how we can help you, please feel free to contact us here.