Medical

The benefits of augmented reality for mental health

18th September 2020
Lanna Cooper

Though generally tied to the video game industry, augmented and virtual reality companies are planting seeds from the construction industry to education, and most sectors in between, including healthcare. Augmented reality in healthcare can help with a number of issues, both mental and physical, but this article will focus on its benefits regarding the former.

Guest blog written by Amber Harris, Academic Resources, Circa Interactive

Escapism

For individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, and too much stress caused from the proverbial daily grind, finding a way to separate the mind for a while is necessity for maintaining good mental health. For some, that escape is sports (watching and/or playing), for others it is art, for some it is prescription drugs, and even psychedelic drugs have been getting more readily tested as a form of depression and anxiety treatment.

The latter is a fairly new evolution in escapism, as is the utilisation of augmented and virtual reality. With AR and VR, a patient can literally go to a new world when they strap on a headset and escape to a world where they feel safe and relaxed.

Fear cessation

Somewhat in line with escapism, being able to overcome whatever is causing mental anguish is also being successfully tested in the world of virtual reality and augmented reality. Exposure therapy as part of integrated health is what many refer to it as, and historically it meant therapy centered around low 'doses' of whatever a given patient views as a threat, slowly adding more and more until a given fear has subsided. An easy example would be overcoming a fear of heights. Before VR, a therapist would create a controlled environment where they would introduce their subject to a small height, and slowly introduce greater heights until the fear subsided.

That’s a very elementary example, but for more serious issues like PTSD, the thought process is the same. With augmented realities, programmers can act as therapists to create virtual environments where individuals can experience very miniscule exposures to the issues that are causing their post-traumatic stress, and slowly be exposed to more until their mentality gets them to realise that their fears are not reality. The VR options for this type of treatment allow for very minor increases in the intensities of the environments, and for PTSD patients, in particular, it’s very important to not overexpose.

VR also makes it easier to measure success rates of therapy, as it can measure reductions (or increases, in some cases) of stress levels in patients who undergo therapy in that fashion.

The almighty dollar

As one could imagine, creating actual environments like the ones mentioned above can be very costly, depending on the type of stress a given patient suffers from. Recreating a battlefield, for instance, for a PTSD patient is simply not financially achievable. Even though VR is expensive compared to other interactive experiences, it’s much cheaper than creating an actual controlled environment, and the possibilities are pretty endless with the right programmer.

The upfront costs for making VR treatments a regular thing are sizeable, but if it does become a sought-after means of treatment (as many predict it to), the machines only need a programmer to create an infinite number of situations to help patients with their mental health issues, meaning a lot of money saved on the back end.

Quality

Ultimately, the vast majority of healthcare professionals just want to do what’s best for their patients. Often, when 'saving money' gets thrown into the conversation, care providers balk, as it can also mean a decrease in quality care. This does not seem to be the case with VR for the treatment of mental health. Around 30% of patients who utilise other therapies to deal with PTSD drop out of the programs.

In the short time VR has been an option, this number is much lower and is often attributed to the fact that while in a virtual setting there is still part of the brain that knows the digital environment is not real, whereas with real life controlled environments, patients perceive the situations as 'too real' and do not want to continue. For fear reduction, a major part of PTSD treatment, VR averages a whopping 70% reduction rate in patients who complete the programs, and that is a high quality return for patients.

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