Immersive virtual reality therapy could help people with depression

Teaching self-compassion to combat self-criticism

It’s becoming increasingly clear that virtual reality is more than just a fun gaming experience. After attending VRUK last week, we were able to see VR tech being integrated into theatre, events, and marketing but another important area it’s proving itself useful in is health. Companies like Firsthand, whose game SnowWorld has been used to reduce pain in the treatment of burn victims, have shown that VR is able to change the brain’s perception of pain to offer physical relief. Now, a new study has shown that VR could be a way of helping our mental health, too.

The study, from UCL and ICREA-University of Barcelona, has found that immersive virtual reality therapy could be a way to help those with depression be less critical of themselves, helping to reduce the symptoms of depression.

The therapy was tested on 15 patients aged 23-61 with depression. Participants wore a virtual reality headset which put them in the body of a life-sized avatar. Patients were able to see the movements of this avatar reflect their own real life movements through an in-game mirror, creating the illusion that they were seeing their own body.

As the avatar, participants were then given the task of showing compassion to an upset virtual child in order to comfort them. The child would respond positively to the compassion and eventually stop crying, after which the patient’s perspective would be changed to that of the child and they would receive their own comforting gestures and words from moments earlier. This entire scenario only lasted around eight minutes, and patients repeated it three times a week.

When the treatments were followed up one month later, nine of the fifteen patients reported reduced depressive symptoms and four of those nine said that they had experienced a clinically significant reduction in the severity of their depression.

Professor Chris Brewin who led the study explained that “People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives” and that this study encouraged them to indirectly treat themselves with compassion with the aim of teaching “patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical ” in real-life situations.

Though the sample size is too small to definitively prove that therapeutic VR is entirely responsible for patient improvement, it does offer good ground for researchers to build on, which they absolutely intend to:

“We now hope to develop the technique further to conduct a larger controlled trial, so that we can confidently determine any clinical benefit. If a substantial benefit is seen, then this therapy could have huge potential. The recent marketing of low-cost home virtual reality systems means that methods such as this could potentially be part of every home and be used on a widespread basis.”

The idea of using immersive VR experiences in therapy is not a new one, but this is an exciting development, one we hope will have more success.

Image: UCL