Disclosures: Aleknavičius reports being head of medical affairs for Kilo Health.
April 04, 2022
3 min read
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Virtual reality plays role in mental health treatment

Disclosures: Aleknavičius reports being head of medical affairs for Kilo Health.
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The number of Americans with anxiety has skyrocketed from 7% in 2019 to 40% in 2021, according to the CDC. That means more than one in three Americans are experiencing a mental health condition since the pandemic began.

Sadly, the numbers are worse for younger Americans. The CDC and Census Bureau partnered over the summer of 2021 and found that 45% of U.S. residents between the ages of 18 and 29 years have anxiety and depression symptoms.

Many of those same young people might associate virtual reality with games and entertainment, but a new study published in Psychiatry Research (Monaghesh et al.) found that VR therapy can reduce anxiety and depression. According to the study, VR helps patients learn how to manage their symptoms in a simulation, which transfers into the real world.

Aleknavicius mug
Kasparas Aleknavičius

This technology might sound like science fiction, but many digital health companies, including Kilo Health, are already developing prototypes of VR therapies to help with mental health and chronic illnesses.

What is VR mental therapy?

VR uses a headset to immerse the wearer in a “virtual reality” that produces real-life experiences for the user. Imagine you have anxiety over public speaking. VR could create a situation where you are speaking in front of thousands of people, without having to recruit crowds to help with your anxiety. Your therapy becomes more real than just speaking with a therapist about your fears, anxiety or depression.

Mental health therapists are already testing various VR programs in their offices. Psious has created 70 different VR environments that enable patients to work through their mental health conditions with a psychotherapist. However, a limitation of this early VR adaption is that patients still must physically go into an office.

The next VR game changer with mental health will take place when consumers can access the technology in the privacy of their own environment.

Trending VR tools for mental health

Regardless of where the VR therapies go in the future, it is almost certain that Oculus will be a dominant headset and controller used by consumers. It is already becoming the go-to platform for several therapies created for patients with anxiety.

People often say they are more afraid of public speaking than death. “Glossophobia” is estimated to affect about 75% of the population.

Samsung has developed the VR mobile app, Fearless, which helps people overcome that fear in the comfort of their own home. The app responds to voice volume, speaking pace, eye contact and heart rate, providing feedback and evaluating progress.

Bridge Trek is another Oculus VR product that manages anxiety and fears in the user’s own environment by turning fears into a game. As the user shows progress, the game gets more difficult and moves onto more stressful situations. This is an early product, but I anticipate more to come this year.

Virtually Better is a platform health professionals are currently testing with their patients. The VR treatments allows therapists to control a patient’s sensory experience. For example, if a patient has a fear of thunderstorms or flying, the VR experience will create the situation for them. The company has created more than 60 research products with psychotherapists for the office and classroom.

AppliedVR, using Curebase's decentralized clinical trials platform, is another VR option for health professionals to use with their patients struggling with anxiety, stress and pain. More than 30,000 patients across 200 hospitals around the world have already gone through the company’s virtual program. This VR program contains more than 40 immersive environments, including meditation and breathing exercises, “distractional” games and virtual visits.

Many more VR programs for mental health exist, and it will become a more competitive space in the next few years. As patients begin to hear more about VR and become comfortable with it, this new approach to mental health will become even more accepted.

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For more information:

Kasparas Aleknavicius, MD, is head of medical affairs for Kilo Health, where he is involved with clinical product development and digital health research and partnerships.