Is Metaverse Technology Improving Mental Health Treatment?

It’s been wild last two years for all of us. After experiencing the turmoil of the pandemic, unforeseen market instability and a seemingly endless chain of global and civil unrest, the incidence of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions has reached a staggering high. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has weighed in on the dangers of our growing mental health crisis, with a scientific review reporting a 25% increase in mental health problems since COVID-19 first hit the world.

The social isolation caused by the pandemic was one of the greatest challenges our modern society has faced in the last century – and caused unprecedented constraints on human conditions, working life, communities and general mental well-being. As a result, many people turned to virtual resources for work, regular communication, and even medical treatment. It is also precisely for this reason that 92% of companies reportedly believe that the pandemic has accelerated the development of metaverse technologies.

As we leave the final stages of the pandemic and look forward to our first normal summer of the decade, it seems appropriate that this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week would be loneliness. In honor of this year’s event, let’s take a look at how evolving technologies seek to improve mental health care, reduce the effects of loneliness, and provide greater access to care – especially as we see metaverse technologies increase in popularity.

Use of XR technology to combat loneliness

When we could not physically meet with our colleagues, friends or family members during the pandemic, video conferencing helped us stay connected – even if it did not exactly replace the feeling of real interactions. In line with this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week, more immersive technologies have already been suggested by experts as an even better remedy for those experiencing social isolation and loneliness. The spatial nature of VR means that interactions in more immersive games and metaverse platforms feel much more like being around people in the real world.

During the pandemic, VR even found an unexpected new group of users – seniors. MyndVR has already worked with hundreds of senior living communities across the United States, and has seen a significant increase in popularity within the last two years. Chris Brickler, co-founder of MyndVR, has noted the company’s transformation from a youth-based gaming culture to a “very safe, secure and senior-friendly platform”. In addition, he commented on the platform’s success under COVID: “We’re just super excited to provide this service to as many older people as you know are sometimes lonely and fighting isolation.”

A recent study by Frontiers in Psychology has also concluded that XR technology and more immersive gaming experiences have positively impacted users – especially by “modeling the relationship between involvement, well-being, depression, self-esteem and social connectedness”. The study found that while there is a risk that VR may displace personal involvement, healthy social interactions in a VR environment are still “beneficial to players by satisfying essential needs to belong and connect with others.”

Anna Bailie, a PhD candidate at the University of York, specializes in researching mental health cultures on social media – and she believes that the future of how metavers will affect our mental health will improve, rather than to damage our ability to connect with others. According to Bailie: “Metaverset has been sold as a place of community, sociality, making friends and maintaining relationships.” Moreover, she believes that: “there is no reason why it can not happen when we already see it on social media platforms like Instagram and Reddit, where people find communities that they would not otherwise have access to.”

Improvements through in-depth care

As we have previously covered, a recent peer-reviewed study from Oxford University concluded that patients who tried VR-based therapy experienced a 38% reduction in anxiety or avoidant symptoms during a six-week treatment period. According to another study, patients suffering from paranoia experienced a decrease in their phobias – even after undergoing only one VR session. The immersive nature of VR is now understood as a way for us to trick our brains into believing that it responds to a more realistic encounter – an emergence that can see patients develop healthier and more effective coping strategies.

Dr. Daria Kuss, Head of the Cyberpsychology Research Group at Nottingham Trent University, has hailed VR technology as an effective therapy tool: “We know that certain forms of psychology, especially virtual reality exposure therapy, can be great tools to help individuals affected by a variety of phobias, depression, psychoses, addictions, eating disorders – as well as post-traumatic stress disorder – by gradually exposing them to the triggering, feared, or trauma-producing stimulus in a safe space (such as the virtual environment).

University College London (UCL) has been behind a number of clinical trials using VR to treat mental illness. The university has partnered with Tend VR to bring mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) – a form of face-to-face therapy that has proven very effective – into a virtual framework. According to Rebecca Gould, Honorary Clinical Psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at UCL, “virtual reality-based mindfulness represents an innovative and new approach to solving this challenge.”

UCL also unveiled a specialized VR intervention program that would replace face-to-face therapy for depression, aimed at helping patients increase their ability to show self-compassion. By using a virtual space, patients are shown two virtual avatars – both a child and an adult. In the first segment, they enter the room as the adult – with the task of comforting the child until its stress is reduced. In the next section, they will play like the child – this time comforted by the adult script. The compassionate script inside the module resets on three key themes: experience validation, attention redirection, and positive memory activation.

A growing body of scientific research now also supports the idea that certain psychedelics, when administered by a therapist, can support a range of mental disorders – including depression, PTSD, addiction and various types of anxiety. Now, health experts are even seeking to copy the benefits of psychedelic-assisted therapy in the metaverse. Emotional Intelligence (EI) Ventures, a growing startup, leverages the power of VR to overcome geographic and economic barriers that have previously prevented people from accessing psychedelic therapies.

After receiving a dose of a medically prescribed psychedelic, EI users will embark on a virtual journey using their VR headset. According to founder David Nikzad, each user’s vision will be specifically tailored to suit their unique background, personality and medical history – with the goal of providing a “zone of comfort”. He continues: Not everyone wants the same comfort zone. I liked beaches and waterfalls, another might be in the Swiss Alps. We can fine-tune that experience. ”

Even current gaming tycoon Robloxwho have been praised for bringing users together through shared experiences, has recently launched major initiatives to raise awareness about the importance of mental health and personal well-being. Sponsored by Alo Yoga, Roblox recently unveiled ‘Alo Sanctuary’ in February – a metaverse island with a picturesque landscape that includes “three terrestrial elements of the brand name Alo – an acronym for ‘Air Land Ocean’.” Danny Harris, co-founder of Alo, has called “this first of a kind partnership” a “long-standing commitment to support the mental and general health of the global community as a whole.”

Provides greater access to mental health care

Many metaverse-related complaints we have heard over the past year have circulated around the idea that a more immersive internet will be more addictive than the one we live in now, thereby preventing us from embarking on a healthy, social engaging lifestyle. However, the practicality and flexibility of VR already show that the metaverse will also make mental health care more accessible and even more plausible for people to access – giving it a very positive use case.

XR technology now makes mental health care accessible to everyone across the globe, regardless of their location or social status. Users who have historically encountered physical barriers to mental health care can now see more affordable treatment options, all the while receiving it through more immersive, lifelike and interactive channels.

Daniel Freeman, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford, has highlighted a problem he sees in clinical psychology – that many patients are unable to attend therapy sessions due to lack of accessibility (including lack of transportation, rigid work schedules or fear of stigma). As an alternative, his team has unveiled gameChange – a program that includes a six-week course where participants can meet with a virtual coach from anywhere in the world to overcome phobias and other forms of paranoia.

Joy Ventures, a growing VC company seeking support from science-backed consumer products for wellness, has also pointed out the potential for VR treatment to become more personalized and tailored to meet patients’ personal needs. In addition, they have also emphasized the scalability and flexibility of these technologies: “Even before the pandemic, social isolation, stress and anxiety exacerbated problems – but with greater use of behavioral health technologies, people will have better and more accessible opportunities to receive the care they need.”

Last thoughts

While growing research provides several clear arguments as to why the metaverse will be a great therapy tool, it is still important to note the number of potential health risks that are present. Several experts in both technology and mental health have already expressed concern about how the immersive and potentially addictive nature of metaverse can lead to a decline in mental health.

Other experts, however, argue that this issue is much more nuanced – and argue that factors such as genetics, physical activity, diet, or socioeconomic status play a much larger role in identifying mental health conditions. Nick Allen, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, emphasizes the importance of context when referring to the use of metavers: “[For example]”, a young person who may be LGBT and who finds an online context where they can feel a sense of social support – we would predict that it would be a benefit to their mental health,” he says. “On the other hand, if the use of metaverse technologies replaces non-online behaviors that are healthy and supportive of mental health, such as appropriate exercise, engagement in real-life relationships, healthy sleep, time spent in natural environments, then they can be harmful. ”

It is crucial that both the pros and cons of new metaverse technologies are highlighted. Clinical psychologist Barbara Rothbaum, whose efforts in the VR space go back as far as 1995, can vouch for the timeline in which we have seen immersive technologies evolve and move from academia to society. We are now at a stage where we can see the effectiveness of VR technology from a clinical point of view, but she still insists that there are “some barriers” to overcome.

In general, studies seem to be going in the right direction. XR technology seems to have reached us at a relevant time – where mental health and the effects of isolation have never been a major concern. As such, we should expect to see the benefits of more innovative, flexible and accessible mental health care become more common over time.

William

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