Oxford VR released on Wednesday that Virtual Reality could serve as a cure of phobias in the form of a virtual therapist.
The team at Oxford VR, led by Daniel Freeman have begun developing a programme that could help solve fear of heights using Virtual Reality (VR), requiring no human interaction. This news comes after the National Institute of Health Research declared they would invest £4 million into VR therapy research earlier this year. Other projects on virtual therapy for schizophrenia and depression are also taking place.
Virtual Reality was tipped to dominate technology trends in 2018, but its potential benefits to mental wellbeing seem to have been somewhat understated.
So how does the VR programme treat phobias? Well, in the case of fear of heights, the individual would see a virtual world through a headset and have to complete tasks such as picking fruit or rescuing a cat. In the virtual world, the user can see themselves at great heights, without even leaving their chair in the real world.
The psychological principle behind it is one of simple habituation. The user becomes used to being at great heights without any consequences in the virtual world, making the concept seem less daunting in real life.
Virtual therapy seems like a wonderful concept thus far, but is it as effective in practise as it seems in principle? Here’s our analysis of everything around the question.
Are the results of Oxford VR’s studies misleading?
Oxford VR found the programme to be surprisingly effective. Fear of heights fell by 68% on average, which is better than what is normally achieved using a human therapist over the same time period. There were also no side effects.
However, we should not get too ahead of ourselves. Firstly, the results were obtained through a questionnaire, meaning the data relies on the participants ability to avoid bias and correctly recall their change in fear. The bias we would most likely expect to see is the ‘Yes Bias’ – whereby individuals do not want to disappoint researchers because of the potential significance of the development, so give an inflated reduction of their fear.
Secondly, no long-term effects have been studied (YET). With regard to the claim that virtual therapy is more effective than face-to-face treatment, we can only support this short-term. The longer lasting effects of virtual therapy may wear off or not be as large as conventional treatment. Moreover, although no side effects were found after two weeks, we may start to see them appearing at a later date after the treatment was used. Though the results are exciting, to say that virtual therapy is more effective than traditional methods is too much at this point.
Some phobias are too specific for virtual therapy to work widescale
VR programmes for phobias that are very common such as fear of heights or spiders, or other mental health problems like schizophrenia and depression, can be distributed on a large scale and will work effectively for many people. Their ease of distribution makes them a practical and efficient alternative to human therapies. However, some phobias are highly specific to the individual. Take PTSD for example; the trauma that each individual experiences is likely to be something different to someone else’s. Whether it will be possible to generate VR programmes that are specific to an individual has to be questioned. My suggestion is that although it would be possible, it will not be practical or cost effective enough for producers to do so.
This is not so much a negative, since virtual therapy can still be used for many phobias, but a reduction in the positive, in that they will only treat common phobias and mental disorders.
Will we see a loss of psychiatry and clinical psychology jobs?
Given that virtual therapy could replace human therapies, you would expect to see a fall in demand for therapists, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists and therefore a loss of jobs. However, there is currently a shortage of these very positions anyway, meaning that rather than replacing the human clinician, virtual therapies may simply support and reduce stress on them.
Moreover, many professionals promote the patient-therapist relationship as an essential part of the individual’s recovery, suggesting that it shouldn’t and won’t realistically be replaced.
What we should realise is that this doesn’t have to be an ‘either-or’ debate. Rather, we can have a ‘both-and’ situation, where both virtual and human therapies exist in cooperation. Those who would prefer to be treated by a human therapist can be, whilst those who don’t can use virtual therapy.
In summary, I don’t think that job losses are something we should be concerned with.
A great alternative for those who don’t like human therapies.
Some people, the introvert for example, may fear or dislike current therapies themselves because of their face-to-face nature. This means that some individuals with phobias or mental health problems do not seek treatment for their issues before they become more serious. The issues then become more serious and spiral into severe mental illness. With a virtual therapy that is readily available in the patients own home, requiring no face-to-face contact, many of these more serious mental illnesses could be prevented.
This is something we cannot turn a blind eye to. If there is a possibility to prevent numerous mental illnesses and even suicide, we must take it.
Though virtual therapy is not entirely without its problems, the problems it does have are not major and are far outweighed by the potential benefits it could have. Research has produced encouraging, though not conclusive, results and preventable mental health issues will not go ignored. All without a significant cost to job losses if we adopt a ‘both-and’ approach.
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