Can VR help patients battle depression?

What if the answer to curing depression was not in taking pills but in taking a step into another world? According to World Health Organization 300 million people all over the globe are plagued by depression, and it has become too huge of a problem to not do something about it. Previously seen as just a means of entertainment, over time virtual reality has proved its potential in ways that have never been imagined before. One such thing is using virtual reality to combat depression and its crippling symptoms.

Till now, people with depression haven’t had a lot of options to treat themselves except taking medication, therapy or combining both of them. However, VR has stretched the thin band of these options into a full spectrum of possibilities. Virtual reality therapy has recently emerged as a way of treating depression and has pointed researcher towards a new direction. Different studies have been conducted to test whether VR can boost positive feelings in depressed people.

“It goes to the heart of the very best of psychological therapy — going into environments that cause difficulties and learning different ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Mental health and the environment are inseparable. The brilliant thing about virtual reality is that you can provide simulations in the environment and have people repeatedly go into them”

~ Dr. Daniel Freeman, a University of Oxford psychologist

A psychiatry researcher, Michelle Craske and her colleagues at University of California are testing the effect of VR on people with serious mental health conditions. Patients are placed in the middle of a sun-soaked forest, piano playing at the background, and are coached to notice the positive parts. The experience intends to make patients learn to plan, participate and soak up on the constructive activities to feel good in the process. This research has been accepted at the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that has put positive affect treatment on the map. Participants of the study were reported to have lower levels of anxiety, depression and other negative symptoms as compared to their peers undergoing standard treatment.

Another study, accepted at Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking Journal tests the effect of virtual reality on mood and induction of positive emotions to treat patients. A virtual environment was particularly created for patients with chronic pain. Results revealed that a significant increase in positive emotions, mood state, self-efficacy and motivation of patients was noticed.

Likewise, researchers at University College London and ICREA conducted a study to test whether immersion therapy could treat people suffering from depression, self-criticism and feelings of worthlessness. It involved 15 participants who were placed in virtual world and uses a technique called embodiment, where their avatars will move along with their body movements displayed on a mirror in front of them. They were asked to console the avatar of a crying child, asking him/ her to think of a happy memory or about someone who loved them. The child responds by calming down and once they have stopped crying the scene is switched and participant is asked to switch roles. By embodying the child avatar, their own adult avatar is played back where they listen to themselves speaking kind and comforting words. After a month participants revealed that they felt that their self-criticism has reduced, and felt more compassion for themselves.

These studies show that virtual reality can be a new and innovative way to battle depression. Most important thing to consider is that the program is well-designed and doesn’t cause any disagreeable side effects that could further derail their condition. Although it shows incredible potential in treating psychiatric conditions, researchers still need to identify patient groups and conditions that may benefit best from virtual reality.