Treating mental illness with virtual reality

An Oxford University study tested virtual simulation on sufferers of severe paranoia, with positive results.

From the Series

Virtual reality simulation tests “have the potential to be transformative”, according to Oxford University’s Professor Daniel Freeman. The study carried out by Oxford University, took thirty patients from Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and gave them the opportunity to face their fears.

The virtual simulation recreates common social situations in which people are forced into close proximity of each other. For those suffering from paranoia, these situations are often too intense, where they end up feeling as if everybody is out to get them. In response, they would usually shut down and turn inwards in defence.

Through these simulations, the study hoped to reteach patients that these situations are in fact quite safe and that nobody intentionally wants to harm them. 

The study, which was funded by the Medical Research Council and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, showed positive results.

Through the use of proven psychological treatment techniques and virtual reality technology, they have potentially found a way to help sufferers of paranoia. The simulation replicated social situations such as the train or a crowded elevator. The number of simulated characters are increased so as to increase the difficulty.

Freeman said, “It’s not easy work for patients since lowering defences takes courage. But as they relearned that being around other people was safe we saw their paranoia begin to melt away.”

Two groups of patients were given different coping mechanisms to deal with the virtual situations. The first group was encouraged to let down their guard and make an effort to accept that the situation wasn’t harmful. Whilst the second group was told to react how they would normally, using defence mechanisms.

According to Oxford News, the first group showed a 50 per cent reduction in severe paranoia sufferers while the second group showed a 20 per cent decrease.

Further research will need to be carried out to see if the benefits can be prolonged beyond the day of testing. 

“Paranoia all too often leads to isolation, unhappiness, and profound distress. But the exceptionally positive immediate results for the patients in this study show a new route forward in treatment,” says Freeman. 

Virtual reality simulation has had positive results
A virtual train station helps sufferers of paranoia face their fears
Paranoia makes close social encounters unbearable