Mental health awareness means creating a world of empathy and coping with the stigma associated with it. Half the goal of this mission is achieved when the society accepts mental illness as real as physical illness. The other half is dealing with the problem and being sensitive towards the patients. We need to acknowledge mental illness, talk it out, and find solutions. Interestingly, Virtual Reality has come up as an approachable and novel method for treating types of mental health concerns. It has emerged as a viable solution for healing general stress, anxiety, tremors and phobias, depression and related disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The technology has been tested in secured and controlled environments in the form of virtual reality exposure therapy – VRET. With the prominence of VR headsets like HTC Vive, Microsoft Hololens, and VRXOne, the testing has become affordable and convenient. The scenario is far better than the mid-1990s when a head-mounted display rig would cost over $50,000. VRET has given a pragmatic direction to Telemedicine, which in turn opens doors to better healthcare conditions in rural and remote areas. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure Therapy are two prominent psychotherapeutic treatments for mental health. Under CBT, the patient attends a series of sessions where the target is to find the cause of disorder by analyzing the thought pattern of the patient and peeping into the history of phobia. The behavior of patient under challenging situations is recorded from which the source of their beliefs and notions is traced. For instance, if a patient is afraid of height, they will avoid climbing tall buildings. If they are insecure, they will avoid social gatherings. Calling them unsocial would not be a solution. It will only exacerbate the situation. CBT gives as a medium of tackling these situations and overcoming them. Exposure Therapy (ET), as the name suggests, is a treatment where the patient is exposed to such challenging situations and is gradually impelled to face them. In the real world, the exposure therapy requires extensive care and safety measures, thus making it nonviable in many situations like emulating a war zone, a crowded area, or a free fall! Also, ET goes hand in hand with CBT and is an obligatory part of it. Different kinds of health issues call for different CBTs and ETs. Another enterprise has come up with the concept of artificially intelligent virtual patients. Patients can open up to these virtual assistants whom they often trust more than doctors. Overcoming the fear of judgment, patients are able to get rid of social awkwardness. The physicians can then conduct clinical interviews and diagnostic assessments on these avatars. Facing a situation in a real therapy can be off-putting for many because the patients are usually reticent and sometimes unable to explain their behaviors. Another application of VR involves operationalizing the technology by training autistic patients and helping them gain necessary social skills. In tackling the persecutory delusions like in psychosis, VR has come out as successful again.

A Worthwhile Story Upholding The Power of Virtual Reality

Mel Slater, a professor of virtual environments shares an interesting story. “I was in one session where the guy had such a fear of public speaking that he told us about speaking at his daughter’s wedding. When we asked, ‘How old is your daughter?’, he said, ‘Three!’ He was later asked to speak in front of a virtual audience. Initially, he resisted, ‘I can’t do this, I’m turning bright red, my voice is an octave higher.’ The psychologist urged him to give it a shot and later played his video-recording asking, ‘Is your face red? No. Are you speaking an octave higher than normal? No.’ What Slater did in one afternoon would have taken 12 weeks otherwise. The result was warm and welcomed. The relevance of VR was also proven by the creation of ‘avatars’ to cope with anxiety and depression. The logic behind this simulation is rather interesting and a tad-bit twisted. The therapy happens in two stages. First of all, an avatar is created that embodies the patient who explains his problems to the psychiatrist in the therapy session. The avatar looks similar to the person and responds like him. In the next therapy session, an avatar is created of the psychiatrist and the patient embodies it. Now the psychiatrist’s avatar, maneuvered by the patient, talks to the patient’s avatar. So technically, it is the patient talking to himself. Switching roles and helping oneself – that’s the underlying idea. Why, you ask? Because we are generally too harsh and critical of ourselves. Through the virtual therapy, the patient is able to realize the problem and immerse oneself to find a solution. Here, the technology helps in the most impactful yet smooth way. Do we need to open up more about health issues? It’s a no-brainer. Of course, we do. Virtual Reality gives a chance to embrace and uplift people. We seem to have found a viable solution for improving mental health.  

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