Virtual Reality Applications in Mental Health, Therapy, and Addiction
Mental health issues are a serious problem in the United States. Over $200 billion in lost earnings per year are due to mental illness, with depression as the leading cause of disability in the U.S. among those ages 15 – 44. Depression is one of the top 3 workplace issues, along with family crisis and generalized stress. These problems are intensified in our many military veterans. Twenty-two military veterans lose their lives to suicide every day, and the rate of PTSD is 15 times higher among veterans than civilians. Most importantly, and tragically, the overwhelming majority of civilians and military veterans do not receive the treatment and therapy that they need.
Substance abuse and addiction are also a serious problem in the U.S, and often co-occur with mental health disorders. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that drug and alcohol abuse costs the U.S. economy approximately $600 billion in healthcare, criminal justice, legal and lost workplace productivity every year. There has been a recent upsurge in the prevalence of opioid addiction that has reached epidemic levels, and is of grave concern. Alcohol abuse has been and continues to be a major problem in the U.S. Although drug and alcohol rehabilitation are often successful at getting an addict “clean”, recidivism rates are high and relapse is the norm.
We strongly believe that anyone suffering from mental health disorders or addiction should seek professional help from medical professionals and mental health experts. At the same time, we believe that tools like VR show great promise as tools for mitigating mental health problems, facilitating therapy, and for “unlearning” addictive behaviors.
Mental Health and Therapy
Psychological therapy, often supplemented with pharmaceuticals, is highly effective at reducing symptoms for most patients. One study shows that 80% of those treated for depression show an improvement in symptoms within 4 – 6 weeks of starting treatment. We believe, and a growing body of research suggests that VR can complement therapy in many positive ways. From a logistics standpoint, at most therapy sessions occur once a day, most likely for an hour. More often therapy occurs once a week or so. VR is available 24/7. If one is feeling depressed or anxious, they can don a VR headset and be transported to their favorite beach or to a forest landscape with soothing music in the background. Or one can visit Paris, the Great Wall of China, or even a galaxy far far away. Many mental health disorders are associated with feelings of isolation. With VR one can visit with friends and family in real time in virtual spaces, and feel that connection.
Applications of VR for PTSD and anxiety disorders are growing as well. In these cases, and most likely under the watchful eye of a mental health professional, a PTSD patient can be slowly habituated to anxiety and stress provoking environments but within VR. The “unlearning” of perseverative behaviors like rumination, anxiety and stress require multiple exposures to anxiety provoking situations. VR offers a perfect tool to address the need for multiple exposures because it is available 24/7 in almost any location. The number of mindfulness, relaxation, and mediation related VR experiences is growing. We fully expect the mental health community to embrace and continue to leverage these technologies in the coming years.
A typical 30- to 60-day inpatient rehabilitation program can cost anywhere from $12,000 - $60,000. Unfortunately, although addicts are often successful at avoiding destructive behaviors while in rehabilitation, and despite the best efforts of those in the health care system, relapse rates following drug rehabilitation remain high. From a psychological and neuroscience perspective, it is as if rehabilitation causes the abusing behavior to disappear but only temporarily. Once out of rehabilitation and back in society, the abusing behaviors return. The rehabilitation process temporarily suspends the bad behavior but does not induce true unlearning of the abusing behavior.
Although a detailed discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this report, suffice it to say that the real culprit is context. The reappearance of addictive behavior once back home that a rehabilitation program was designed to eliminate (and did successfully eliminate within the rehabilitation context) suggests that the intervention did not induce true unlearning, but rather induced context-specific unlearning. The idea is that the rehabilitation center serves as a new environmental context, which causes new learning, rather than unlearning of the previously acquired addictive behavior. As a result, the addictive behavior reappears when the “rehabilitated” addict re-enters their original addictive environment.
Virtual reality offers a great tool for addressing this problem because with VR you can put the user in any context that you like. Imagine incorporating VR into the rehabilitation process by transporting an addict into a virtual environment that shares many of the contextual cues associated with their typical “using” environment. Now imagine incorporating some of the behavioral extinction or unlearning procedures, commonly utilized during rehabilitation, into this virtual environment. Since the addict is in a virtual environment that is similar in context to their “using” environment, true unlearning of the addictive behaviors within this virtual “using” context could take place. By incorporating VR environments that share many contextual cues with the using environment into the rehabilitation setting, true unlearning is more likely to occur. Unlearning requires many exposures, but VR offers a perfect tool to address this need as it is available 24/7.
The areas of mental health, therapy and addiction are ripe for the introduction of immersive, VR technologies to complement existing tools and to facilitate recovery from mental health disorders and addiction — one experience at a time.