The Future of Mental Health: VR Therapy

Throughout the past decade, we as humans have enacted many changes to improve our living conditions, from a rise in climate change discussions to discussions on race and gender equality.

One of the biggest shifts this past decade was the acceptance and destigmatization of mental health issues. Over the past few years, we have slowly and surely pushed forward the conversation of mental health awareness from discussions of work-life balance to detection and treatment of mental health-related medical issues. Existing treatments have been re-evaluated and new therapies developed tapping into the tech industry, to aid an ever-growing populace of people actively putting their mental health first. 

One such breakthrough is VR Therapy. In this article, we will break down this emerging technology looking at what it means for the world in general and its feasibility on the African continent.

What is VR Therapy and How does it work? 

Virtual reality therapy (VRT), also called virtual reality exposure therapy, allows the patient receiving the treatment to enter a virtual (simulated) world that is carefully constructed to increase their exposure to negative stimuli, so as to build resilience and emotional strength when placed in the real world. 

VRT makes use of a virtual world created by VR technology to put a patient in situations you can learn from. Previous iterations were simply programs loaded onto a computer, that a patient would work through, and based on the conditions sought to be treated. However, with the breakthrough of the VR headset, current therapies make extensive use of the complete immersion that is offered for a much-improved experience and treatment.

Already the technology has been put to use in treatments for several conditions including:

  • Fear of flying, public speaking, and spiders
  • School phobia in children
  • PTSD
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders

 

Reception and Acceptance

Early results of VRT have largely been positive. Recent studies have found that the VRT was as good as a combination of drug therapy and VR therapy, where some situations showed drug therapy alone led to a worse outcome for patients. 

Already the technology has found success in various applications around the world. It has long since been used by the US government to treat PTSD in soldiers from as early as the 1990s. The Canadian government also purchased the software from America in hopes of implementing it among their own soldiers.

The main drawback to this form of therapy however is the cost of the equipment and programs needed. Because of this, virtual reality therapy isn’t readily available to the masses.

This type of therapy can also cause what is known as VR sickness. People who have this condition due to prolonged exposure to a VR environment may experience flashbacks, motion sickness, vertigo, seizures, and antisocial or nervous behavior. These symptoms are most likely to occur after 30 minutes or more of VR therapy. 



VRT in Africa


While still an emerging form of treatment, several institutes in Africa have seen the advantages such technology can bring. The biggest problem for Africa remains acceptance and cost.

Africa as a continent still struggles with the acceptance of mental health as a medical issue and it is not uncommon for mental health struggles to go undiagnosed due to a severe lack of specialists or to be misdiagnosed when they are known. Traditional ideas also play a part as the more overt mental health illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are often attributed to curses or possessions in the more traditional societies.

The cost of the therapy also plays a role in the lack of research and use of VRT.  As a developing continent, most African countries spend their budgets on agriculture, development, and projects for economic growth.  More often than not medical research institutes have to rely on limited budget allocations or foreign intervention. Even when the funds are available, priority is given to the eradication of prevalent diseases such as malaria or childhood malnutrition.

However, this does not mean that research into VRT is quiet. Gerard Finnemore a clinical psychologist from South Africa uses Virtual Reality for relaxation and mindfulness training and will soon be incorporating it into treating other conditions. 

In Egypt researcher Ahmad Al-kabbany is pioneering virtual reality (VR) therapy in the city of Alexandria despite the region’s economic challenges.

“We’re not aiming at making it accessible for everyone not because we don’t want to but we need to deal with the financial conditions as they are,” says Al-Kabbany

In Nigeria, the startup company VMedKit has developed content to facilitate VRT which could also be used for personal wellness and meditation. The company, officially launched in 2018 and aims to make mental health care accessible to Nigerians and Africans in general.

However, VMedKit is not the first company in Africa to undertake such an endeavor. The startup VRHealth launched in 2017 in South Africa. As of the writing of this article, the startup seems to have gone quiet with little about its operations being known.

The future of VRT as a viable form of therapy remains hopeful as the prices of VR equipment become more affordable and research into the field continues to grow.

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