How a new therapy uses VR to help those with depression, trauma, PTSD, and other mental health issues

Chi Kin Dominic Chan

Virtual reality isn’t used solely in gaming; VR therapy could help us overcome our fears, or even recover from past traumas

Chi Kin Dominic Chan |

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A friend once described to me what it was like living with depression: “Think back to the worst day of your life, maybe a break-up or the loss of a loved one. Remember the emptiness in your chest, the listlessness in the mornings, and how all you felt like doing was curling up in bed. Now imagine feeling like that every day, with a voice constantly screaming that it’s your fault.”

Living with a mental illness is never easy, but the social stigma that comes with mental illnesses makes it hard to even admit to having a problem, let alone seek professional help. According to the US National Library of Medicine, one in five people globally suffer from depression or dysthymia (persistent, mild depression) at least once in their lives. With such high rates, what new ideas and technology are there to help combat this growing problem? Pioneers in the field of virtual reality therapy believe they can help.

Most of us usually associate the term “virtual reality” with entertainment and gaming. Yet the immersive nature of VR means it has huge potential for use in therapy.

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I sat down with Christoph Lynen and Mike Verhiel, founders of Psylaris, a Netherlands-based company which provides mental health care through VR, to discuss the science behind their programme.

“Our programme specialises in EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing),” said Lynen. “It’s a form of therapy originally developed to treat symptoms of PTSD.”

Lynen explained that giving patients something else to think about while they recall the source of their pain can help to lessen the emotional response that those memories would normally trigger.

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“It allows patients to deal with their trauma without inducing an emotional breakdown.”

Lynen and Verhiel allowed me to try a demo of the programme. As I put on the VR headset, I found myself transported to a cosy cabin house. Outside the window, pine trees rustled gently in the wind; inside, a fire crackled in the fireplace; it was a safe and comfortable environment.

Once the treatment began, I was encouraged to recall a traumatic experience, while also focusing on a series of tasks; the multitasking helped to distract me from my emotions, desensitising me to the memories.

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“Currently, our programme is being used by clinics in the Netherlands alongside traditional therapy sessions,” Verhiel explained. “But with VR headsets becoming more common in every household, we are looking into developing an app version of the programme, to allow more people to access it.”

Indeed, the popularity of VR headsets will allow more people to get the help they need – without having to deal with the stigma that comes with mental illness. Furthermore, it will help alleviate the long waiting lists that often come with public health care.

Psylaris isn’t the only company embracing this new technology. Digital distribution platforms like Steam offer apps to help cope with common phobias such as spiders, heights, and even the fear of public speaking.

With the worldwide consumer market for virtual reality technology expected to reach $19 billion by 2021, it seems inevitable that, like smartphones or laptops, VR will become a staple of every household – leading us one step closer to widely accessible mental health care.

I for one am excited for virtual reality to change our actual reality.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

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