With the way that social interaction has shifted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have found that they have more social anxiety than in the past. As socializing moves to in-person from a largely virtual presence last year, it’s been hard for many to acclimate. Thankfully, there are many ways to help treat social anxiety, such as therapy. One method of treatment for social anxiety has become more popular in recent years as technology advances: virtual reality.
Virtual Reality, or VR, has been around for decades, the term being coined by Jaron Lanier in 1987. VR and mental health have been paired since VR’s inception, as it was used in the 1990s to treat PTSD. In fact, VR is still used to help treat PTSD, with such programs as Bravemind from the University of Southern California, which targets veterans of the Afghanistan war to help them with their PTSD through controlled simulations.
The reason VR is effective at treating issues like PTSD and social anxiety is that it creates immersive, controllable simulations for patients. VR is an excellent tool for exposure therapy, a mental health treatment that exposes the subject to their fears or anxieties through acted-out scenarios. Exposure therapy can be used in cases of social anxiety, with VR “pubs” for individuals to practice socializing; to cases of substance abuse with digital interventions. Studies are still ongoing about the effectiveness of VR, but much of the published results look promising. VR has also been applied to mental health treatments for depression, phobias, eating disorders, and even conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Some groups of autistic adults and children have used VR to help gain independence by practicing reading social cues in simulations. There have even been discussions of applying VR to forensic psychiatry, and one case of using it to help treat pedophilia.
Therapy with VR has been taken to a whole new level, as some companies are trying to create virtual therapy spaces for individuals, complete with a virtual therapist, either from a human or AI model. Research groups from Oxford and University College London, who have developed these virtual therapists. argue that having a therapist avatar within VR can make therapy more flexible or affordable for some individuals. Instead of having to take time out of your day to have a therapy session, you can put on the VR headset whenever is convenient for you. This of course gives some people pause, due to a concern for data privacy. If the virtual therapist is created from an AI model, would the therapy be private or effective? Many experts argue that there need to be ethical guidelines and data privacy rules in place when using VR to treat mental health conditions.
While the questions of privacy and ethics arise with using VR in therapy, there are other questions regarding cost. VR headsets have become more affordable, but not every clinic or individual can afford one. This makes it more difficult to give new therapy methods to people who need them but can’t afford them. In time, as VR technology advances, hopefully, it will become more accessible for all individuals, making this new form of therapy beneficial to all.
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Powell, Wendy. 2021. “How virtual reality is aiding mental healthcare”. Med-Tech Innovation | Latest news for the medical device industry.
Srivastava, Kalpana., Das, R.C., Chaudbury, S., 2014. “Virtual reality applications in mental health: Challenges and perspectives.” Industrial Psychiatry Journal.
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