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14 SPECIALIST CLINICS Imagine this...


Virtual reality therapy is helping people suff ering from PTSD, autism and paranoia — and it could soon be used in the NHS. Words: Sam Lewis


If you or someone you know has a mental health issue, or simply fi nds specifi c real-life scenarios troubling or traumatic, it might be time to embrace virtual reality (VR). Computerised cognitive behavioural


therapy has long been used to tackle phobias such as a fear of heights or fl ying. Now, it seems, donning a virtual reality headset could help anyone suff ering from a melange of health issues, ranging from post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to autism and paranoia. The idea is that if a person


can be safely immersed into a controlled environment that may be uncomfortable, they might be able to develop and learn new forms of behaviour that they can then transfer to real-life situations. Recent studies by


Dr Daniel Freeman, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, have shown that even short-term VR therapy can help reduce the levels of paranoia felt by individuals with psychosis. “We’re in the process of


developing and trialling treatments clinically. These have potential uses in the NHS and hopefully later direct to the general public.” Freeman initially tested 30 suff erers,


putting them on a ‘virtual’ 30-minute train ride or elevator trip, encouraging them to engage with strangers and confront their fears. While the study wasn’t defi nitive, more than half the participants no longer felt serious paranoia by the end of the day and, even the 20% who ‘stuck to their old ways’, also exhibited reduced paranoia. “All too often, suff erers fi nd day-to-day


life so anxiety-provoking that they simply withdraw into a ruinous spiral of isolation,”


HEALTHCARE INNOVATIONS 25 MARCH 2018


says Freeman. “Everyday tasks — getting on a bus, doing the shopping, speaking to other people — become very challenging. Active coaching in the situations that trouble people can help patients move beyond their fears. However, this is diffi cult without a skilled therapist who can take patients out and about.” Virtual reality isn’t seen as replacing


therapists, but it can also involve a face-to- face discussion with a ‘virtual’ therapist or ‘avatar’; this can be useful for those who fi nd it diffi cult to open up to a real person. Other studies are proving


that VR therapy can also help autistic adults and children make sense of the world around them, and develop the skills they need to be independent. At the University of Haifa in Israel, VR has been used to help teach autistic children how to safely cross a road, without putting them under stress or in danger. Also, in the US, Bravemind uses graduated


exposure VR therapy to help soldiers


relive traumatic events under a clinician’s care. “If VR is suitably automated, combining


the best psychological science with sophisticated programming, then it could dramatically increase the provision of treatment,” concludes Freeman. “It has to be fully tested, though, and the evidence must be gathered, but the potential is transformative for mental health services.”


USEFUL LINKS nowican.com vrs.org.uk/healthcare medvr.ict.usc.edu/projects/bravemind/


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