Virtual reality may have started in the gaming industry, but it’s proving to be a valuable tool in everything from aerospace to medicine. Instead of just immersing players in a virtual gaming world, they’re helping aerospace engineers assemble the deep spacecraft that will carry us to Mars and beyond and assisting medical professionals to treat their patients. Let’s take a closer look at one company that is using VR to help treat individuals with PTSD and other mental health issues.
Mental Health Stigma and Treatment
Mental illnesses affect nearly 20% of the U.S. population or one out of every five people if you include every currently diagnosed mental illness. Despite the number of people who live with a mental health diagnosis, only a fraction of them seek out treatment due to the negative stigma that surrounds mental health and illness. If you live with a mental illness, you’re seen as crazy or dangerous — especially if you use media depictions to build your perceptions — and if you seek out treatment for your illness, you’re perceived as weak. With these negative stigmas that surround mental health and illness, two-thirds of those who live with these illnesses will never seek treatment or even be diagnosed.
One diagnosis that is often shrouded in stigma is PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder. This diagnosis can affect upwards of 3.6% of the adult population in the United States every year, and it’s not limited to military veterans. Anyone who has experienced trauma can experience PTSD. Treatment for PTSD can vary, from exposure therapy to group therapies and even medication, but it still requires patients to seek out treatment. What if you could receive treatment in the comfort of your own home? One therapy group in the Netherlands is exploring the possibility.
Virtual Reality and PTSD Treatment
Exposure therapy works by putting you into a situation where you’re exposed to your trigger or triggers so you can learn to manage your responses. For some patients, especially those with PTSD, it can be challenging for medical professionals to put them into a triggering scenario while maintaining a safe and healthy treatment environment. Virtual reality may give them the missing piece of the treatment puzzle — at least, that’s what Netherlands’ startup Psylaris is hoping to prove.
Psylaris uses virtual reality to make their patient comfortable and then encourages them to think about a traumatic event. While you’re reliving this event, the program moves you through a series of tasks, preventing the event from triggering you by keeping your mind busy on other tasks. This is known as eye movement reprocessing or EMDR therapy. Essentially, you’re distracting your brain from the trauma, which makes the memories easier to process.
Currently, Psylaris uses their treatment in-house alongside other therapy techniques, but as in-home VR headsets become more affordable and accessible, they may seek out a home-based treatment program that patients can pursue in the comfort of their own homes.
Psylaris isn’t the only company that is using VR to treat fears and other mental illnesses. If you own a VR headset, a PC, and a STEAM account, there are a number of different programs available that act as virtual immersion therapy, helping you deal with everything from arachniphobia to a fear of heights.
Psylaris might be one of the first companies working to treat PTSD and other mental illnesses with virtual reality, but we doubt that they’ll be the last. VR provides a nearly limitless creative platform and the tools to immerse the user in these environments. Virtual reality may prove to be an incredibly useful tool to help us treat mental illness moving forward. It may have started in the gaming industry, but it’s going to end up being so much more. Programs like the ones that Psylaris is running are just the beginning.