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The Potential of Virtual Reality for Improving Mental Health


Virtual reality, immersive experiences, and innovative devices, such as a multi-sensory communication platform, offer a range of solutions for treating mental disorders on a global scale


Mental health has long been a pressing concern. Even before the pandemic, this was already a significant concern of global proportions — according to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly a billion people globally were living with a mental disorder in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic played a crucial role in accelerating this trend. The unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, and social isolation acted as catalysts, amplifying pre-existing mental health conditions and triggering new ones among individuals across all age groups and backgrounds. A study published in the prestigious journal The Lancet unveiled that the prevalence of elevated depressive symptoms among US adults has risen significantly in recent years, with 32.8% experiencing such symptoms in 2021, compared to 8.5% prior to the pandemic. These distressing statistics underscore the urgent need for innovative approaches to tackle the global mental health crisis.

Mental Health: Key to Well-Being 

“There is no health without mental health.” The quote by Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, emphasizes the critical need to prioritize and integrate it into our overall healthcare approach. Mental disorders are not only prevalent but also the single largest cause of disabilities in the world.

Mental health plays a profound role in every aspect of our lives. From our thoughts and emotions to our behaviors, it allows us to navigate life's challenges with resilience and adaptability. However, millions of people struggle with feelings of anxiety, fear, isolation, and depression, lacking access to the care and support they need.

The spectrum of mental health conditions is vast and diverse. Common challenges include anxiety disorders (such as generalized anxiety, panic, and social anxiety), mood conditions (such as depression and bipolar disorder), psychotic conditions (such as schizophrenia), personality disorders (such as borderline personality traits), eating disorders (such as anorexia and bulimia), and substance use challenges (related to drug or alcohol abuse).

Enter a New Era: Revolutionizing Mental Health

Amidst this backdrop, technology offers promising avenues to tackle mental health challenges through multidimensional, immersive experiences, including:

  • Augmented Reality (AR): the integration of digital information into the user's real-world surroundings, delivered in real-time through technologies such as visuals, sound, and sensory stimuli;
  • Virtual Reality (VR): an immersive technology that transports individuals into another world, utilizing a VR headset that provides a 360° view of virtual environments;
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): a technology that aims to replicate human intelligence through machines, such as computer systems; 
  • Internet of Things (IoT): a network that interconnects physical objects through sensors, software, and advanced technologies. These devices can exchange data with each other and various systems via the internet.

New technologies will keep emerging in the coming years, each with its distinct purpose and varying levels of immersion. 

Virtual reality has the potential to enhance accessibility to mental healthcare, addressing the current shortage of professionals in this area, as well as the problems of accessibility and affordability in mental healthcare, reaching individuals in remote areas or those facing financial constraints. Additionally, it holds promise for delivering personalized mental health care, tailoring interventions and support to individuals' specific needs and circumstances.

Devices and Treatments

The healthcare industry has been quick to embrace AR/VR. Its usage is on the rise, especially for diagnosing and treating mental health disorders, which has created immense possibilities for business growth in this sector. 

Extensive research over the past two decades has showcased the effectiveness of VR technology in alleviating symptoms of pain, anxiety, and stress while improving cognitive and social abilities. For instance, VR gradually exposes individuals with anxiety conditions to triggers in a controlled environment, aiding in anxiety management. Likewise, for chronic pain reduction, VR presents serene nature settings and sounds to calm the patient. Additionally, some devices incorporate features like narrators guiding users through breathing exercises or providing lessons on pain responses.

Researchers also recognize the potential of using gaming platforms to support mental health treatment against attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These platforms help increase patient engagement and play a crucial role in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues. 

AI-powered chatbots focused on mental health have also emerged as valuable tools that support and guide individuals dealing with mild anxiety, depression, stress, or addiction. They can serve as a valuable complement to professional support services, assisting users in cultivating positive habits and offering coping strategies during challenging moments. However, it is important to note that mental health chatbots are not designed to replace in-person therapy and should not be relied upon for crisis intervention during emergencies.

Other emerging technologies that could also impact the treatment of mental conditions in the coming years are:

  • Emerge Wave 1: Developed by a company in 2Future's portfolio, this tabletop device uses ultrasonic waves to imitate the sensation of touch, resulting in an enriched social experience and fostering deeper emotional connections among individuals who are physically apart. In fact, this product has been featured in the prestigious World Economic Forum's report of Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2023 set to positively impact future society; 
  • Noninvasive neurotechnologies: Neurable headsets measure an individual’s emotions and focus through electrodes, allowing for customized music adjustments and other features. Additionally, as technology evolves, it may integrate therapeutic neurotechnologies like direct brain stimulation, a potential treatment for intractable depression.
  • Digital Pills: These tech-enabled pills incorporate sensors that track when they are ingested and transmit this data to a digital device or smartphone. They are being used to treat psychiatric conditions, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, by monitoring medication adherence, allowing healthcare providers to assess treatment efficacy and tailor interventions accordingly.

Specific technologies that facilitate entry into the virtual world, such as VR headsets and AR glasses, are rapidly advancing. A fully realized experience is possible with a multi-sensory communication platform, like the one Emerge is building.

It is important to note that while VR holds immense potential, it should complement existing mental health care practices rather than replace them. By harnessing the power of technology responsibly and intentionally, we can provide innovative solutions for those in need and create a future where we prioritize and support mental health, allowing individuals to lead fulfilling lives free from the burdens of untreated mental disorders.

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