Virtual reality is growing in popularity with regard to treating mental health conditions. More specifically, virtual reality has become common place in treating posttraumatic stress disorder in combat veterans. Virtual reality, as applied to the amelioration of posttraumatic stress symptoms, is basically the application of high-tech visual and audio equipment that simulates the combat environment.
This simulation allows the service member to reduce his or her anxiety, hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts and images, and avoidant tendencies associated with the most troubling aspects of a traumatic combat experience.
After attending a professional conference focused on using technology for the treatment of various physical and psychiatric disorders, I was reminded of how interesting these technologies are-at least to a mental health clinician. In the early days of virtual reality, the technology and applications were limited.
Immersion and Realism Possible with Virtual Reality
Not unlike the early days of video gaming technology, the beginnings of virtual reality in the treatment of psychiatric conditions were basic and relatively unsophisticated. However, over the past decade, the technology has advanced to the point that people can experience a highly immersive and realistic simulation of almost any type of situation. It is this immersion and realism that is responsible for much of the improvement seen in mental health conditions when virtual reality is applied.
For example, consider someone who is dealing with a phobia. It could be a fear of snakes, heights, flying, or public places. In the past, mental health clinicians were oftentimes required to take the patient to the zoo, the top of a building, on an airplane, or to a busy store or public square in order to help the person overcome his or her fear.
As you might imagine, this process was very expensive and logistically challenging, especially for patients who struggled with mobility or whose anxiety was so intense that going out in public was not feasible. Using virtual reality, mental health clinicians can simulate the patient being close to a snake, leaning over the side of a 20-story building, traveling through the sky at 400 miles an hour, or walk into the middle of a crowd with nothing more than a headset and a comfortable chair.
The same can be done for public speaking. If your patient is one of the millions of Americans who gets shaky in front of a crowd, virtual reality can put them a large auditorium in front of a seemingly endless ocean of seats packed with people. Virtual reality allows the person to face his or her public speaking fears through rehearsing an upcoming speech or speaking off the cuff.
Virtual reality is good for many other conditions. As noted above, much interest lies in using this technology in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. Researchers and clinicians are using avatars (kind of, but not exactly like the movie) to help service members who are suffering from posttraumatic stress and related conditions.
Service Members Can Explore Various Surroundings
One of the nation’s pioneers in this area is the National Center for Telehealth and Technology in Tacoma, Washington. In this and related institutions, service members are able to create a visual representation of themselves in the virtual world. They can choose to be tall or short, skinny, muscular or fat, male or female, and any color under the sun and of the rainbow.
Once the service member creates a virtual self, he or she can explore his or her virtual surroundings by accessing different rooms and levels, which provide information about posttraumatic stress disorder, how to manage symptoms, and when and where to go for help. The service member also has the ability to interact with others dealing with posttraumatic stress.
Bottom line, technology appears to be keeping up with the times when it comes to the treatment of mental health conditions, particularly the effects of combat trauma in veterans. The question is, “Will mental health clinicians keep up with the technology?”