Will Virtual Therapists Help To Overcome The Skills Shortage In Mental Health?

Research last year from the West Virginia School of Medicine showed that virtual therapy sessions conducted via video link during the pandemic were generally as effective as their in-person peers. As research in the British Medical Journal reveals, however, such an approach still requires a trained mental health professional, and in England alone there is such a shortage that around 1.5 million people are currently waiting for mental health treatment.

Indeed, 40% of those on the waiting list were forced to contact emergency services at some point prior to eventually receiving treatment. Researchers from the University of Oxford believe they may have the answer, via virtual reality-based therapy.

They’ve developed a program, called gameChange VR, which they believe can provide automated psychological therapy via VR. The program helps users with the aid of a virtual coach, which as it doesn’t involve an actual human means that many more people can be seen.

Put to the test

The platform was put to the test in what the team believes is the largest clinical trial for VR mental health ever conducted. The trial showed that the platform was effective at supporting patients that had been diagnosed with psychosis, with the biggest benefits seen among those with the most challenging problems.

The platform was developed via a team consisting of experts from industry, healthcare, and academia. At the heart of the project was OxfordVR, a spinout from the university that specializes in creating immersive environments for use in mental health. The platform aims to help those who have particular concerns about being outside. These can easily develop into severe agoraphobia, which can significantly impact lives and relationships.

The hope is that gameChange will help to treat agoraphobia and enable users to re-engage with regular activities and begin to lead the kind of life they want again.

“Virtual reality psychological therapy has come of age with gameChange,” the researchers explain. “Over the past 25 years, VR has been used in a small number of specialist mental healthcare clinics. It has supported in-person therapy delivered by a clinician. However, with gameChange, the therapy is built-in, so it can be overseen by a range of staff. And it can be delivered in a variety of settings, including patients’ homes.”

Making improvements

The paper reveals that the platform was able to produce significant reductions in the likelihood that users would avoid everyday situations. The biggest boost was achieved by patients who would ordinarily have found it hardest to leave the house. These users were able to undertake a range of activities that would otherwise have been unthinkable. What’s more, these behavior changes endured when they were checked in on six months later. The platform was also popular with users, which helped to secure high adoption rates.

“We are delighted that gameChange has produced excellent results for people with some of the most challenging mental health problems,” the researchers continue. “Individuals who were largely housebound have got back outside. Using today’s affordable and easy-to-use consumer VR equipment, we think gameChange will lead a transformation in the digital provision of evidence-based psychological therapy, with deployment at scale for treatments that really work.”

The team hopes that their work can prove particularly effective given the shortage of mental health professionals and the impact this has on the availability of services to patients. The problem is particularly acute for those with the severest mental health difficulties and so there is an understandable enthusiasm among users to try out different forms of intervention.

For instance, a few years ago, research from Brigham High University showed how popular mental health apps were among users. They found that 90% of users reported feeling more motivated, more confident, and general feelings of mental and emotional health.

“Our findings show that mental and emotional health-focused apps have the ability to positively change behavior,” the authors say. “This is great news for people looking for inexpensive, easily accessible resources to help combat mental and emotional health illness and challenges.”

Virtual support

While a huge number of mental health apps have emerged in recent years, perhaps the most interesting area is the development of virtual therapists. Research from the University of Southern California found that virtual therapists can be especially useful in areas such as PTSD.

It finds that soldiers were more likely to open up when speaking with a virtual avatar than when talking to a human, or indeed when taking a survey. The authors believe the avatar provides the advantages of anonymity whilst also providing a degree of social connectivity.

Given the strong likelihood that staff shortages are going to be ongoing at the same time as demand for mental health services is continuing to surge, the use of alternative forms of service delivery should certainly be explored. The Oxford study suggests that virtual therapy is both popular and effective, so may be something we see a lot more of in the coming years.

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