Since the late ’90s, mental health professionals have been using virtual reality to treat post-traumatic stress disorders. But in the past few years, there has been a growing pool of research showing that it is a promising solution for treating depression, too.
Now that the technology is more accessible and affordable, it might even help overloaded healthcare programs around the world.
In the US, 17.3 million adults have suffered from at least a single major depressive episode. That figure represents 7.1% of all adults in the country, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Treatment for depression usually involves curbing negative emotions. VR excels in that area as it can help distract your brain from thinking about pain and other negative thoughts. If you can convince the brain to focus on other things, it’s easier to cope.
However, virtual reality programs aren’t designed as standalone treatments. When used alongside medication and other therapeutic exercises, it can amplify the treatment outcomes.
One study illustrates how VR can be effective in diffusing negative thoughts. By manipulating self-critical words in a virtual environment using handheld controllers, patients can learn how to manage them.
As mentioned, current treatments for depression are mostly designed to curb negative feelings, not boost positive ones. While there are only a few attempts at developing anti-depressive VR solutions, the existing ones are showing promising results. For example, fun immersive activities such as virtual gardening and interacting with pets are proving to be feasible and appropriate for clinical settings.
Virtual reality can also enhance unconventional clinical applications such as embodiment exercises. These exercises can help patients minimize self-criticism and other symptoms of depression.
In a report on global mental health and sustainable development, the Lancet Commission estimated that mental disorders can cost the world $16 trillion by 2030. Due to unmet needs in behavioral healthcare, there is a need for innovation. Virtual Reality is a welcome solution. If rooted in evidence-based therapeutic techniques, VR solutions have great potential to decrease the global mental health treatment gap.
Thanks to VR’s immersive capabilities, it is ideal for creating scalable low-intensity interventions. Virtual reality interventions will be engaging and less intense for patients. Furthermore, they won’t require a lot of resources to develop and deploy.
Perhaps, in the future, everyday consumers can access these virtual treatments. As VR headsets become more accessible and affordable, these treatments could help millions of people who don’t have access to quality mental health care.