The reality of today’s mental health care system is that most people who need help don’t get it. They simply may not have access, care may not be affordable or perceived stigma of seeking help may be a barrier. That’s all too often today’s reality.
Enter virtual reality. This technology seems to be expanding everywhere on a commercial level – most visibly in gaming. But what about outside of entertainment? Is there application for a greater good?
Indeed, there is. Virtual reality (VR) has been used effectively for some time in flight simulators or in training military personnel to handle dangerous and stressful situations before they face real-life encounters.
Now, there is opportunity to explore another greater good opportunity – mental health. The National Mental Health Innovation Center (NMHIC) is engaging with some of the premier players in this arena. Walter Greenleaf, a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has joined our staff. Dr. Greenleaf is an early pioneer in VR and a world-renowned expert on the application of virtual reality. For the past 30 years, he has traced the evolution of research indicating positive outcomes for the use of virtual reality with specific populations and clinical conditions.
Today, we are witnessing the emergence of VR being used as a tool in pain treatments, for example. And as the movement toward digital health accelerates, the timing appears at hand for the expanded use of mental health treatments via virtual reality / virtual environments.
The real-world challenge is no longer the hardware; it’s the application of this increasingly sophisticated technology. When a person wears VR goggles, he sees a programmed 3-D world and himself in that changing world. Within a few minutes, his brain treats that as real – in essence, the brain reacts as if his physical self is in the virtual world. With a sound clinical approach, there is potential to work through any number of mental health issues, such as anxiety, in any number of social settings. While promising, there is not yet any guarantee of positive patient outcomes.
NMHIC is working with an expanding network of virtual environment experts and organizations to help drive a digital mental health strategy for this nascent industry. Researchers, entrepreneurs, investors and health care professionals all have a stake in the direction of digital therapeutics in the mental health field, be it in the areas of professional training, unconventional settings for care such as schools, and the clinical care itself. Most of all, we share a responsibility to the people who may ultimately benefit from the greater access to care this technology has the potential to deliver.