Can Virtual Reality Cure Mental Illness?

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What we know as virtual reality – computer produced images, sensory information on a display system, a tracker feeding back the user’s orientation for visual updates – has been around for fifty years. The reason that VR is a hot topic recently is in part thanks to the investment of global companies in the new generation of head-mounted display products and supplemental equipment, making it a somewhat affordable consumer product. Once an elite toy for gamers, virtual reality (VR) headsets are trying to gain a foothold in therapeutics as a treatment for mental illness. Under the impression that mental illness is inseparable from the environment, VR headsets offer safe, computer-generated interactive environments to aid patients in facing their fears.

VR has been praised for its extraordinary potential to help people overcome mental health ailments such as phobias, PTSD and alcohol abuse. The simulation of triggering scenarios for the sufferers encourages a reprogramming of their problematic thoughts, reaction and behavior. The simulations can be repeated and graded by difficulty, which allows for a controlled and consistent environment during therapy sessions. While there are some disorders that wouldn’t require a therapist’s guidance and ‘empathy games’ designed for the able minded, the majority of VR therapy is designed to be led by a psychological professional.

Their purpose reaches beyond treatment – VR also has the potential to aid professionals with assessing symptoms, identifying correlating symptoms and signs, understanding factors predictive of disorders, testing already known causal factors, investigating different predictions of symptoms, determining toxic elements in the environment and developing personalized treatment. Virtual reality therapy comes from a consumerist place with good intentions, and the world should take any help it can get in stopping what The World Health Organization has deemed a global health crisis.

Global attitude towards mental illness is getting more progressive thanks to the openness of public figures and corporate campaigns like Bell’s #Letstalk. While the statistics are becoming common knowledge, they’re still overwhelming and concerning. An estimated 350 million persons are affected by mental illness. Apparently, one out of every four people in the busy Vancouver café I’m writing in suffers from some level of mental illness. In Canada alone, 50% of citizens over 40 years old have or have experienced a mental illness. There seems to be an overwhelming amount of campaigns and initiative to fight obesity in the states, where over 1/3rd of the population is considered obese – but where is that enthusiasm when it comes to preventing mental illness?

I don’t believe that the growing reports of mental health issues in the world is because there isn’t a variety of treatment methods. In order to alleviate individual burdens of mental illness, solutions need to target the still prevalent stigma associated with the diseases. Symptoms of disorders are still largely dismissed as ‘excuses’ for bad behavior. It’s concerning to imagine how skewed the statistics we have on mental health may be given the fact that many persons still refuse to seek help from health professionals and go undiagnosed and untreated. The Canadian Mental Health Society released a report indicating that while 72% of Canadians would discuss a diagnosis of cancer with friends or co-workers, only 50% of people would discuss their or their loved one’s mental illness. Furthermore, many people suffering from mental illness are blocked by their genuine belief that they are undeserving of treatment. It’s difficult for people to have self-compassion when they believe they shouldn’t be sick, don’t see their illnesses as deserving of attention or are angry at themselves for being unable to ‘snap out of it.’

“The pretense that false simulation could replace therapy or medication altogether would be irresponsible.”

While mental illness can cost people their livelihood, relationships, physical health and even their lives, the cost of treatment can be the factor deferring people from seeking diagnosis and treatment. In a recent Rolling Stones article that examined the illegal use of psychedelic drugs for psychiatric treatment, the patients anonymously interviewed had more than their untraditional medication in common—they were all middle-class and white. Mental illness is brutal and all about perspective, so in no way do I mean to belittle the suffering of the middle-class white folk. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that minorities and the poor are often predisposed to mental illness and triggers, all while facing more stigma and barriers to help.

People in the lowest income groups are three to four times more likely to have a mental illness. Seventy percent of mental health problems are onset during childhood or adolescence, at a time when funding for treatment may fall largely on the guardians of youth. Mental health issues make people twice as likely to have a substance abuse issue and, considering that both addiction and mental health issues are complicated and hard to understand by those unaffected, ill persons don’t always have supportive networks to financially aid them. Adding a new treatment method like VR headsets which involves advanced technology and a therapist’s guidance only helps those with pre-existing access to treatment, not the vast majority who don’t. These sessions still cost the same as a one-on-one counseling session – which ranges from $75-200 USD. Many conditions suggest weekly appointments, a luxury that few can afford if their place of work doesn’t subsidize it. Considering the economic burdens of mental health on the economy such as disability leave, absences and low productivity, which cost both Canada and the U.S hundreds of billions of dollars each year, you’d think leaders would prioritize finding a solution to the stigma and cost barriers of treatment.

Call me cynical, but contrary to the articles online supporting this technological revolution, I find this treatment method problematic. While I understand the benefits of controlled, safe exposure to reoccurring triggers, perhaps virtual reality therapy is more beneficial in terms of what it can show therapists than as an accessible treatment. Through this engineering and technology, physical cues such as eye movement and heart rate can be measured to calculate potential triggers and help therapists specify treatment methods. The idea that repeated simulation of real life triggers will aid patients seems overly hopeful, however. Though sufferers of mental illness have chemical imbalances that make their thought patterns diverge from ‘the average person,’ they’re far from stupid. People know they’re not actually looking over a city from the tallest skyscraper, or confronting their attacker while using VR. Real events are unpredictable, and treatment should be designed to prepare patients for the uncertainty of who, what, where and when their next trigger will be. Catharsis may be one benefit of VR simulations, and a heightened sense of confidence or assurance may be found in treatment – but the pretense that false simulation could replace therapy or medication altogether would be irresponsible.

VR therapy has the potential to educate not only mental health professionals about different diseases and causes, but also the public. Many companies are designing ‘empathy games’ for people who voluntarily wish to experience a simulated anxiety attack. Still, the concept reeks of consumerist notions – the idea that we need to buy more to feel better, technology can get things done more efficiently than humans, etc. We shouldn’t need to have corporate names like ‘Bell’ in front of awareness campaigns, and cool headsets before we’re interested in helping the mentally ill. It all seems very impersonal. There have been successful cases of chronic pain being treated through virtual reality therapy – which, while being beneficial for many sufferers, still makes me concerned about how this treatment method may create more stigma towards the mentally ill. If someone with chronic pain can be treated through VR, shouldn’t a depressed person be able to just get some more Vitamin D and smile? Shouldn’t an anorexic just be able to eat a burger and get over themselves? Will the long and grueling process of dealing with life-long mental illnesses be belittled through video game-esque suggested remedies?

Of course, more help isn’t negative, but if additional solutions are within similar realms of pre-existing treatments, we’re still in need of farther reaching remedies. Powerful groups need to step up and make moves towards funding for mental illness treatment programs, medication and awareness. And at this rate, we need these moves made STAT.


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