For many of us, graduate school presents constant challenges that can be emotionally, physically and psychologically taxing. Chronic failure, poor work-life balance, financial difficulties and uncertain career prospects breed a pervasive anxiety that can have you questioning your capability and intelligence. For students who have built their identities on their intellectual prowess, this can be difficult to cope with and video games can provide a welcome escape from the pressure. With the advent of virtual reality (VR) a player can now slip on a VR headset and mentally transport themselves to incredibly immersive new worlds. But this technology is being transformed beyond escapism into tools that could help treat mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.

clouds-1845517_1920Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) has been explored as an extension of traditional exposure therapy. VR provides an immersive component to this therapy, allowing the patient to explore potentially triggering situations with the assistance of a therapist who works with the patient to develop strategies and techniques to overcome their distress. Bravemind, a form of VRET developed by University of Southern California’s Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT), is aimed at treating vets suffering from PTSD. Patients are hooked up to a headset and clinicians can choose from a series of virtual scenarios, like walking through a Middle Eastern city or driving a Humvee down a desert road. In addition to the visual stimuli, different sensory stimuli can be delivered during the simulation to increase immersion. For example, the smell of burning rubber or Iraqi spices can be released through a scent machine or a bass-shaker platform can deliver vibrations associated with driving down uneven terrain. Bravemind allows clinicians, in a slow and step-wise fashion, to gradually expose patients to these cues and work with them to create and associate new and safe memories to them. The brain behind Bravemind, Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, explains: “Say someone was driving down a road and what looked like a piece of trash on the side of the road was actually an improvised explosive device (IED). In VR, they might just sit in the Humvee on the side of the road for the first few sessions. The clinician will ask, ‘what do you see, what do you smell, how does this feel?’ The ultimate goal is to allow the patient to see something on the side of the road in real life and not react as though it’s a potential bomb.”

virtual-reality-1898441_1920Developers have recently begun designing VR games for the direct purpose of helping people cope with stress, anxiety and depression. One such game, Deep, has been hailed as the “Xanax of VR”. In addition to the standard headset, players wear a controller that tracks diaphragm expansion. Guided by a circular reticle that expands and contracts with the movement of your diaphragm, deep breathing techniques allow your character to float gracefully through a beautiful and mysterious underwater world. Perhaps one of the most touching tales of Deep comes from indie developer and mental health speaker Christos Reid, who tried the game while he was on the verge of a panic attack following a presentation: “It took only about 10 seconds or so for the game’s breathing-based control scheme to become intuitive, at which point I’d become so engrossed in gliding through the environment and surrendering my mental state … that I’d forgotten about the media frenzy around me.”

New strategies to treat mental health are being increasingly explored. Wide-scale adoption of VR was previously hindered by cost and clinician resistance. However, this is changing as the technology becomes more accessible and as our understanding increases. Still, concerns exist about the long-term effects of VR on the brain and longitudinal studies are therefore needed before this technology can be introduced into the clinic. Nevertheless, if the exciting promise of VR is realized, VR may have a central place in treating mental health issues.

  1. Wolters Kluwer Health. “Virtual reality for psychiatric treatment? Research shows promise for VR and other technologies in mental health care.” ScienceDaily. 8 May 2017.
  2. Jessica L. Maples-Keller, Brian E. Bunnell, Sae-Jin Kim, Barbara O. Rothbaum. The Use of Virtual Reality Technology in the Treatment of Anxiety and Other Psychiatric Disorders. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 2017; 25 (3): 103
  3. Popescu, Adam. “These VR Systems Help Treat Veterans Recovering From PTSD.” Bloomberg, 16 Mar. 2017. Web. 09 July 2017.
  4. Volpe, Joseph. “A virtual reality game that’s good for you and scientist approved.” Engadget. N.p., 14 July 2016. Web. 09 July 2017.
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Ashton Trotman-Grant

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