In many respects, the internet is the definitive double-edged sword. Some of its greatest strengths can cause its biggest drawbacks and vice versa. For instance, social media and blogs democratize the expression of opinions, giving people a platform to share their fears and concerns. Yet they also provide an ideal platform for malicious individuals to criticize and abuse – reinforcing many of the issues people were attempting to discuss in the first place.
Virtual reality poses another conundrum. On one hand, sudden immersion into an artificial audiovisual environment may be disorienting, frightening, and even emotionally triggering. Yet, on the other hand, VR is being hailed as a potential game-changer for the treatment of mental health, another issue where the internet’s role remains controversial.
The link between VR and mental health
As a society, we are increasingly aware of the human mind’s fragility, which is why concepts like mindfulness are being enthusiastically embraced. VR has demonstrated the potential to both diagnose and treat a raft of mental health issues, from anxiety to Alzheimer’s. One of the first examples of its ability to effect positive change came in the 1990s, with rudimentary PTSD treatments. One in three survivors of traumatic events will experience PTSD at some point, and VR offers scope to normalize triggering scenarios by repeatedly immersing people until scenarios fail to elicit strong emotional responses.
Unlike real-world reenactments, a VR simulation can be suspended or stopped at any time. And while it might take the patient time to reacclimatize to the real world, this is far easier than attempting to cure claustrophobia by positioning someone in a confined space. Patients with certain disabilities or agoraphobia might also find a virtual VR consultation less traumatic than attending a distant office or inviting a stranger into their home. It’s also considerably cheaper, democratizing mental health treatment by making it more self-guided and affordable than an expensive appointment with a specialist.
One problem the VR industry presently faces is a lack of governance and guidance about mental health treatment. There are no universal rules and standards, no domestic or international guidelines on the efficacy of treatment, and little clarity about whether haptic feedback or olfactory inputs add to the virtual experience or detract from it. And though some researchers believe VR might eventually help diagnose complex conditions like autism and schizophrenia, there is no definitive proof of concept regarding VR and mental health yet.
A head for heights
In the absence of regulation and governmental oversight, much of the work in this field remains theoretical and laboratory-based. Yet VR tech is already present in many hospitals and therapists’ rooms. Aversion therapy is one area where substantial progress has been made, allowing patients to face their fears without actually experiencing them. A VR program could tackle a phobia of heights by replicating stepladders and balconies, before scaling up to simulations of hot air balloons and helicopters.
Of course, the symbiosis between VR and mental health doesn’t necessarily mean that either will proliferate. Virtual reality remains hobbled by the technical limitations of today’s software – the wires and bulky headsets, the latency and the challenge of accurately replicating bifocal vision. Virtual reality also faces a growing threat from its augmented cousin, which can be overlaid onto real-world environments without impeding mobility. By comparison, being forced to stand still or sit in a fixed position often proves frustratingly restrictive. Yet as the third decade of the 21st-century approaches, the dovetailing of VR and mental health does seem to have amassed a certain unstoppable momentum.