Is virtual reality therapy going to be the next big thing in universities?
Source: Billetto Editorial/Unsplash

As the number of students with mental health issues increases, universities around the world are finding new ways to help them.

It was recently reported by CU Boulder Today that Colorado University’s CU Boulder’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) has begun a pilot programme for the use of virtual reality (VR) for mental health treatment.

According to the website, programmes will include “guided meditations and relaxation and a simulation that addresses anxiety and fears.”

The new programme, already available to students at the university, “aims to integrate VR with traditional therapy techniques for students facing anxiety, depression and other common mental health issues.”

It is offered on a limited basis starting this semester, as there is currently only one VR headset available at the CAPS VR lab.

However, according to CAPS Director Monica Ng, “Additional programmes will become available soon after the launch, and students who are interested in integrating VRT into their current treatment plans should talk with their CAPS counselor.”

It can also be used to treat phobias such as the fear of heights (acrophobia), the fear of public speaking (glossophobia) and the fear of insects (entomophobia).

Virtual reality therapy can help students with phobias, anxiety and other mental health problems. Source: VRT News

Ng said, “VR allows us to fully immerse students in environments that would otherwise be difficult. Exposure therapy is an evidence-based treatment to address anxiety and phobias, but the integration of technology into the therapy setting has been very limited on college campuses due to lack of resources.”

She also warned that just like other psychiatric treatments, virtual reality therapy (VRT) is not for everyone.

“VRT is not for everyone. It’s important to have a conversation with your counselor to determine if this is the right treatment course for you.”

However, while the report called it a ‘ground-breaking initiative’, the use of VR for counselling and psychiatric treatment is not exactly new.

In fact, it has been around for decades,  according to TechCrunch, used as a tool for therapists to administer therapy in a safe and controlled environment.

The use of virtual reality for therapy goes back to the 1990s, where it was used extensively by the US government to deliver prolonged exposure therapy (PET) to soliders and war veterans who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A study published in 2014 examined the effectiveness of “virtual reality exposure augmented with D-cycloserine or alprazolam, compared with placebo, in reducing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to military trauma”, and found that VR therapy alone was more effective than a combination of drug therapy and VR therapy.

Virtual reality has been used to treat PTSD in soldiers since the 90s. Source: VRT News

Due to technology and cost limitations, it hasn’t been widely available until recent years, with the boom of affordable mobile VR headsets.

There are also numerous apps today that support the use of virtual reality for psychological purposes, such as Guided Meditation VR, a virtual reality relaxation app where you can relax in exotic locations around the world without leaving your home.

A study by Newcastle University also recently found that immersive virtual reality therapy has a lasting effect in treatment of phobias in people with autism.

According to the paper, “Immersive virtual reality has been shown to help children with autism with nearly 45% remaining free from their fears and phobias six months after treatment.”

In the UK, virtual therapy reality is also slowly becoming more widely used.

As reported by TechWorld a few months ago, a start-up based in Oxford University has released a therapeutic VR programme for fear of heights, and plans to tackle social anxiety and psychosis soon.

Oxford VR has successfully completed a trial of a therapeutic programme to treat a fear of heights, delivered through a VR headset.

The programme involves a virtual reality scenario where the user visits a number of different floors in a shopping mall, slowly bumping up the fear factor.

According to the report, “After easing themselves in, participants are asked to attempt feats many of us would find terrifying in the real world – stepping out on a narrow plank suspended several floors above a shopping mall atrium to rescue a cat, for example.”

While other virtual reality therapy programmes involve a real-life therapist who walks patients through the process, Oxford VR uses a virtual therapist who delivers cognitive behavioural therapy alongside the VR experience.

This virtual therapist guides the patient through their treatment, asking them questions about their thoughts and feelings, and how they’d like to progress through the activity.

Virtual counsellors and therapists are also slowly becoming a popular trend in university counselling centres.

With plenty of evidence pointing to the fact that VRT is a legitimate and effective form of therapy, the future looks promising for universities planning to incorporate this technology in their mental health programmes, thanks to the growing affordability and availability of headsets.

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