Mental Health Diagnosis: Can Virtual Reality Play a Part?

Mental health holds a heavy stigma. This is exemplified by just how many people are suffering from symptoms and do not reach out for help. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the average delay between onset of mental health symptoms and intervention is 8 to 10 years (1). Why is that? The American culture tends to focus more on physical health and mental health gets put on the back burner.

There are many opinions out there about mental health conditions being a “character flaw,” “made up,” or “all in one’s head.” One of the reasons as to why that is may stem from the diagnostic point of view. Mental health is the only branch of medicine where we do not have a definitive test (i.e. lab test or x-ray) to pinpoint what it is the person is suffering from. To further the stigma even more, after we have a diagnosis, the treatment process can be a trial and error process, which can deter many from continuing down the path of recovery and healing.

Clinicians and researchers are now looking into a new tool, virtual reality or VR, to help with diagnosing some of our common mental health conditions (3). Since the release of VR, there was a lot of hype around treating certain conditions. While that may be far off, the hopes are high to use VR to potentially diagnose certain illnesses. Researchers testing VR capabilities are able to generate scenarios and experiences that can’t easily be produced in a traditional clinical setting.

Dr. Martine van Bennekom, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Psychiatry, explains, “Virtual reality provides a unique opportunity to bring real-life experiences into a clinician’s office. With some psychiatric disorders, for example OCD or panic disorder, patients usually experience their symptoms in their personal environment or in crowded places, and not in the clinician’s room. With VR it is possible to immerse patients in an exterior environment while the clinician can observe symptoms and interview the patients about these symptoms and underlying thoughts.” (3)

While the potential is there, VR is not currently being used in clinics. More research is needed before this tool could make its way into our doctor’s offices. Also, motion sickness does come to mind when thinking about VR. When you are in a simulated environment, some may get nauseous, rendering the experience and the diagnosis a wash. Daniel Freeman, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, notes that VR is being used in labs and research institutions to “inform understanding of causes rather than diagnose conditions (3).”

As technology enhances, so do the efforts of many to try and tackle mental health diagnoses. For more information on VR and mental health, check out the articles below.

Resources:

  1. https://www.nami.org/learn-more/public-policy/mental-health-screening
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/oct/09/mental-health-patients-waiting-nhs-treatment-delays
  3. https://www.wired.com/story/virtual-realitys-latest-use-diagnosing-mental-illness/
  4. https://techtrends.tech/tech-trends/vr-treating-mental-health-issues/

 

Janae ShillitoJanae Shillito, Community Relations Director for The Kim Foundation

Janae Shillito has been with The Kim Foundation since February 2017. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science and Masters of Science with her alma maters including the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, respectively. Janae’s love of volunteering and helping those without a voice created a strong desire to become a part of the non-profit world. She is the volunteer coordinator for The Kim Foundation and currently serves on the Metro Area Suicide Prevention Coalition, RESPECT Community Advisory Council, Nebraska School Mental Health Steering Committee, School Based Attendance Coalition, Systems of Care’s Social Media & Communications Work Team, Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, and Nebraska’s Healthcare Network Access.

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