Using Virtual Reality To Support Mental Health, Wellness and Resilience
Jose is a forty-three year old military veteran who has had ongoing issues with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, social isolation, and addiction since leaving the service nearly two years ago. He struggles with anxiety in social settings, and sometimes finds it difficult to leave the house. He currently sees a therapist once a week. He likes his therapist, and always feels much better following a therapy session, but he frequently struggles between sessions. He wishes there was a way to find additional relief when he feels the need and without having to leave his home— a program that would allow him to reduce his anxiety and relieve his stress would be ideal. He has tried audio tapes and meditation on his own but neither has proven to be very engaging and he still struggles to remain focused.
Jose has also struggled with addiction to pain medication for an injury sustained during his time in the service. He completed an 8-week addiction/pain management program a few weeks ago that helped turn his life around. The program was intense and he felt like it made a difference but the reality was that once he had finished, he was back to being on his own. Jose once again felt like he was slowly losing control and worried that he would begin to abuse his medication again.
The truth of the matter is that he felt fine in the context of the addiction program, but now that he is back at home, he continues to struggle. He feels like his brain and his body are “forgetting” all of the things that he learned in the program. He wishes there was a way to get follow-up training, a way to help him remain healthy and confident.
Though he may feel like it, Jose is not alone in his tumultuous journey. Jose’s story is shared by countless veterans, emergency responders, law enforcement professionals, and many others who are currently struggling with day to day life following episodes of trauma.
Among the 230 million adults living in the United States and Canada, the lifetime prevalence of PTSD is between 6 and 9 percent. It is far more common than you might have realized, but that does not make it any easier to manage or treat for those experiencing it.
Over the span of one year In the United States, nearly 58 million adults had either substance abuse disorder (SUD) or mental illness according to a recent report from SAMHSA.
Figure 1. Past Year Substance Use Disorder (SUD) and Mental Illness Among Adults Aged 18 or Older: 2018
The value of mental health professionals cannot be overstated, and the existence of addiction/pain management programs are critical. Even so, and as Jose laments, often people need something to help when they are not in front of their therapist or after they complete the addiction program. This is where the concept and possibility of a virtual reality “booster” treatment comes to mind. Sometimes, circumstances are such that a little help “between therapy sessions” can go a long way; and by the way, Jose is right: the brain is hardwired to forget.
A Real Opportunity
This is where immersive technologies like virtual reality (VR) can help; and in some cases, they already are.
Tools like VR show great promise as a complement to in-person therapy and to provide at-home treatment following intensive addiction programs. The strength of VR is that it is consistent, scalable and available 24/7.
Suppose Jose was having another tough day, constantly feeling anxious and depressed. He could don a VR headset and be transported to his favorite national park, beach or a forest landscape with soothing music playing in the background. Instead of trying to practice meditation and mindfulness on his own, he could enter a virtual world that guides him through mindfulness and breathing exercises, many of which are now freely available in the marketplace. When Jose is feeling isolated and depressed, but does not want to get in the car and visit a friend, he can virtually visit with friends and family in real time in virtual social spaces, and still feel that connection. If the situation is dire, Jose could have a session with a virtual therapist in VR.
Jose can also receive some benefit from VR for dealing with his PTSD and the anxiety and stress that he feels in particular situations. He receives extinction training weekly with his therapist and it is helping, but progress is slow. His therapist points out that he must slowly habituate to anxiety and stress provoking environments and that it will take many repetitions. With VR, the possibility now exists for Jose’s in-therapy sessions to be complemented with at-home sessions using virtual reality. Because VR is available 24/7, Jose can get the multiple exposures that he needs, when and where he needs them most.
VR can also help with the “booster” training idea we mentioned earlier, for instances when Jose feels he needs to keep the addiction/pain management program salient in his brain and body. This might come in the form of virtual addiction or pain management sessions developed by program creators. Alternatively, Jose might enter a virtual environment that he has learned to associate with a pain free state. When the pain he feels at home is great, he can enter this virtual environment for relief. This ongoing VR program can keep the benefits of the program alive in Jose and reduce the forgetting in his brain and body.
The areas of mental health, wellness and resilience are ripe for the introduction of immersive, VR technologies to complement existing tools and to facilitate recovery from mental health disorders and addiction. VR can complement mental health therapy and can enhance wellness and resilience in individuals — one experience at a time.