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Case study: Virtual reality for mental health

Professor Daniel Freeman and his team at the University of Oxford are treating patients with psychosis using a virtual therapist within a state-of-the-art virtual reality system to gradually introduce people to simulations of the situations that can lead them to have episodes. His other research, supported by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, focused on using virtual reality treating people with a fear of heights.

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The challenge

Each year the NHS cares for over 200,000 people with psychosis - a mental health problem that causes people to perceive or interpret things differently from those around them, often causing distress and a change in behaviour. These individuals have a life expectancy 14.5 years shorter on average than the rest of the population, with inactivity (a common outcome of their illness) being a major factor.

Life can be very challenging for those affected, whether that is going to work, doing the shopping or speaking to other people. Consequently, the illness has a detrimental effect on the patient and those around them.

National guidelines in the UK recommend the provision of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to people with psychotic disorders, but there is currently a lack of trained therapists in the UK able to provide such treatment. Therefore there is a need to develop effective alternative treatments that compliment existing services but enable the treatment of a greater number of patients.

How we’re making a difference

The NIHR has funded research to develop and evaluate a therapy that uses virtual reality (VR) technology to treat NHS patients with psychosis.

The research by Professor Daniel Freeman and his team at the University of Oxford uses a virtual therapist within a state-of-the-art VR system to gradually introduce patients to simulations of the situations that can lead them to have psychotic episodes, and to be coached in how to overcome their resulting problems.

The immersive nature of the technology allows people to experience these situations in a ‘safe space’ where they know the interaction isn’t real. For some patients, the treatment could be an effective alternative to existing treatments such as CBT or antipsychotic drugs.

The automated nature of the treatment means it could provide a low cost option for the NHS that can compliment existing care.

This phase of the research, funded by NIHR’s Invention for Innovation Programme, involves a collaboration of NHS trusts, universities and the mental health charity McPin Foundation. It follows a successful pilot study with a smaller number of patients, which showed that the learning made by patients in these virtual environments could be transferred into the real world.

Our goal is clear: to combine the very best psychological science with cutting-edge technology. By doing so, we believe we can help many more individuals with mental health problems to lead the lives they wish to lead
Daniel Freeman, NIHR Research Professor and Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust

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More NIHR research on virtual reality for mental health

The NIHR has also supported similar research in the area of anxiety - a condition that an estimated 10% of us will experience in our lifetime and which is thought to be responsible for the loss of around 20% of working days due to illness.

This research, supported by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, focused on treating people with a fear of heights. The results showed improvement in the phobia for all those that received the therapy compared to little change in a comparison group who received no specific treatment.

Fay has had a fear of heights for 15 years, and was particularly anxious on escalators. She underwent two hours of virtual reality therapy and then tackled the Westgate Shopping Centre in Oxford. Find out how she got on in this short film.

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