The Use of VR in Mental Health Treatment

Shadine Taufik

Though most people do not have access to them yet, virtual reality consoles have become very influential within the past decade.

Allowing programmers and artists the freedom of world-building on a scale unknown before, VR has pushed the frontiers of media and entertainment. Creating a novel layer of reality with its own logic and visuals, VR experiences can feel extremely realistic and, when harnessed for good, may possess healing properties.

Wiring the brain to experience this false reality and going through healing sequences that cannot be recreated in real life, VR has the power to shape minds in a positive manner. There are a number of ongoing projects that utilise VR for social and mental good.

Overcoming phobias and mental disorders

Perhaps one of the most obvious uses of VR is for the therapeutic recreation of traumatic events. Psious is a Spain-based virtual reality platform for mental health professionals. Using VR goggles, Psious offers a therapy platform programmed with 70 different virtual environments, used for treating ‘Anxiety, Specific Phobias, Eating Disorders, OCD, Addictive Disorders’, as well as ‘[applying] relaxation techniques, mindfulness, attention training and [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing]’.

Not only are there a range of environments to choose from, but factors such as the height of the building, the number of people, the way animals interact with the patient, and even the level of turbulence on the plane can all be controlled by the therapist at will, allowing them to gradually emulate more dire scenes.

Included with the product is a skin conductance sensor, which uses physiological markers to monitor levels of anxiety, which alerts the professional of the mental state of their patient.

All of these features are integrated onto the Psious platform, making it easier than ever for mental health workers to keep track of patient progress.

This is incredibly innovative, as mental health workers have not been able to realistically and safely portray phobias in the past. VR acts as a convincing, relatively inexpensive, regulated, and portable alternative to actually exposing patients to their phobias through tools such as full-body machine simulators.

Identifying mental disorders

Virtual reality has also become a plane in which individual data can be recorded and analysed for diagnostic purposes. Industrial engineering faculty and students from the Centre for Health Organisation Transformation at Penn State University have created a transformative VR, which uses sensing technology and artificial intelligence for ‘metacognitive interventions of mental disorders’.

Their VR world replicates a medical centre, and the user takes part in a mental health assessment. This consists of several parts, such as a Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE), which records immediate recollection, orientation, calculation, and recollection. Eye-tracking data is taken every 10 milliseconds, and spoken feedback is also recorded. This is run through an algorithm for diagnosis.

They have also created a diagnostic test for schizophrenia, which includes an audio file of voices that imitates those heard by sufferers of the mental disorder. Patients write their thoughts down, complete questionnaires, solve word puzzles, and test reading comprehension whilst the audio plays. These tasks are completed on virtual whiteboards, further immersing the individual.

The upside of using virtual reality in the diagnostic process is that it is fully quantified, existing in a world of logic and numbers. The smallest eye movements, changes in heart rates, and stress response can be identified by the machine, in a level of detail that the regular physician may not be able to discern.

Building empathy for caregivers

The immersive nature of VR allows users to live the lives of others, which can be very important in building empathetic feelings towards the vulnerable.

In partnership with Antser, a tech solutions company prioritising social care, UK-based organisation Flourish Fostering has utilised VR technology to put social workers and foster parents in the place of children who have been placed in traumatic and compromised situations. The tool has become a mode of living a darker reality without consequence and deepens feelings of understanding and sensitivity towards victims of abuse.

According to an article, this will ‘[help] them to better understand the root cause of difficult or disruptive behaviours, thereby increasing empathy and insight, allowing them to modify their responses to de-escalate and manage the situation’.

One of the social workers undergoing the programme recalled:

‘The technology enables the user to step back from emotions and absorb the message, and makes it engaging to understand and remember. It’s really useful in Foster Parent training for specific issues, using different approaches for the same scenarios that deliver positive responses from children and young people on how adults dealt with challenging situations.’

This has also been applied to caregivers of the elderly. LA-based Embodied Labs utilises VR to train healthcare workers to care for seniors. This is carried out by ‘looking into the mind and body of someone confronted with aging issues’ such as loss of hearing, vision, and memory. These virtual experiences once again provide perspective and a deeper respect and patience towards individuals suffering from these conditions.

PwC found that compared to classroom learning and e-learning, VR accelerates learning and focused learning by 4x, and increases confidence in applying knowledge by 40%. This isn’t a surprise, seeing as how VR can give the viewer tunnel vision, mimicking real life.


VR is an amazingly versatile piece of technology, as demonstrated by the many applications in the mental health treatment field alone. There is still a long way to go in the realm of virtual reality. With each new development, these made-up experiences will be able to elicit more empathy and healing from its users. Scientists also hope to be able to integrate other sensory components into VR, such as smell and tactile elements, in order to heighten the user experience. From gaming to therapy, VR shows that tech is adaptable, and previously novelty, gimmicky ideas can be used for the greater good.

About the Author: Shadine Taufik

Shadine Taufik is a contributing Features writer with expertise in digital sociology and culture, philosophy of technology, and computational creativity.