Will virtual therapists help overcome the mental health skills shortage?

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

40% of those on the waiting list had to contact emergency services at some point before they were finally treated. Researchers from the University of Oxford think they may have the answer, through virtual reality-based therapy.

They have developed a program called gameChange VR, which they believe can provide automated psychological therapy through VR. The program helps users with the help of a virtual coach, which means that many more people can be seen because there is no real human involved.

put to the test

The platform was put to the test in what the team says is the largest VR mental health clinical trial ever conducted. The trial showed that the platform was effective in supporting patients diagnosed with psychosis, with the greatest benefits in those with the most challenging problems.

The platform was developed through a team of experts from industry, healthcare and academia. The core of the project was OxfordVR, a university spin-out that specializes in creating immersive environments for use in mental health. The platform aims to help people who are concerned about being outdoors. These can easily develop into severe agoraphobia, which can significantly affect lives and relationships.

The hope is that gameChange will help treat agoraphobia and allow users to return to regular activities and lead the kind of life they want.

“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 specialty mental health clinics. It has supported the personalized therapy delivered by a clinician. However, with gameChange, the therapy is built in so that it can be monitored by a large number of employees. And it can be delivered in a variety of settings, including to patients’ homes.”

Making improvements

The paper shows that the platform was able to significantly reduce the likelihood that users would avoid everyday situations. The biggest boost was achieved by patients who would normally have found it most difficult to leave the house. These users were able to engage in all kinds of activities that would otherwise be unimaginable. In addition, these behavioral changes persisted when checked in six months later. The platform was also popular with users, which helped to achieve high adoption rates.

“We are delighted that gameChange has delivered outstanding results for people with some of the most challenging mental health conditions,” the researchers continued. “Individuals largely home-bound have moved out again. Using today’s affordable and easy-to-use consumer VR equipment, we believe gameChange will lead a transformation in the digital delivery of evidence-based psychological therapy, with large-scale Commitment to treatments that really work.”

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

For example, 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, confident and overall feelings of mental and emotional health.

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

Virtual Support

While a myriad 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 helpful in areas such as PTSD.

It turns out that soldiers were more likely to open up when speaking to a virtual avatar than when speaking to a human, or even when filling out a survey. The authors believe that the avatar offers the benefits of anonymity while providing a degree of social connectivity.

As it is highly likely that staff shortages will persist as the demand for mental health continues to rise, the use of alternative forms of service should certainly be explored. The Oxford study suggests that virtual therapy is both popular and effective, so we may see a lot more in the coming years.

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