Metaverse and Mental Health: Transforming Accessible Therapy

Metaverse and Mental Health
Source: Shutterstock/metamorworks
Table of Contents

Over the past decade, mental health conversations have become more open and accepted. However, mental health issues remain a growing concern, particularly among those who lack access to adequate treatment due to their socioeconomic status.

With this in mind, could metaverse mental health solutions be the answer to this global dilemma?

This article delves into the metaverse and mental health and the distinctions between conventional online mental health services and metaverse solutions. We will also explore the advantages of utilizing metaverse in mental healthcare.

Video source: YouTube/ 51WORLD

Metaverse in Mental Health Treatment

Mental health professionals are considering a new avenue to improve their services by utilizing the capabilities of the metaverse. 

Despite being an unconventional choice, this emerging technology has the potential to offer an immersive and easily accessible experience to individuals worldwide.

The key component of the metaverse for healthcare is the dual connection between the physical and virtual worlds, where changes in one world are reflected in the other. 

The immersive virtual experiences this technology provides, enabled by haptic and interceptive technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms, can potentially trick the brain into believing these experiences are real. 

Virtual reality (VR) has been used in therapy to create an illusion of presence. The metaverse’s hybrid dimension enhances that sense through embodied technologies, haptic feedback, and extensive data analysis. 

Currently, access to mental health services is limited due to budget cuts, staff shortages, and increased demand. This means people may have to wait long for treatment or choose expensive private alternatives. 

The metaverse could solve these issues by providing a large audience with cost-effective and efficient mental health services. 

Advantages of Metaverse Therapy

The metaverse has several advantages that could make it transformative in the field of therapy.

1. Combating Unconscious Bias

It could combat unconscious bias by allowing users to strip away sensory cues, such as appearance, through avatars that allow users to change their appearance, gender, race, and voice.

This could eliminate unconscious bias in hiring and recruitment and enable sensitivity training that increases awareness and responsiveness.

2. Helping with Long-Term Behaviors

Behavioral economists have found that humans have behavioral biases, such as excessively discounting future outcomes, which make it difficult to change.

By creating avatars that put people in the shoes of their future selves, the metaverse could make the future consequences of our actions tangible and immediate, thereby motivating people to improve behaviors in their own long-term interests.

3.  Addressing Significant Mental Health Challenges

Virtual reality has been successfully piloted to treat PTSD, anxiety, and phobias. Immersive environments could take exposure therapy to the next level, and it could be game-changing for amputees, where VR has been shown to be effective in tackling phantom limb pain issues.

4. Offering Accessibility and Affordability

Institutions will not have to pay huge fees to purchase land or build buildings.

Although the initial cost of building a specialized metaverse may be large, the eventual costs over time will be much smaller, and patients can access care whenever needed.

5. Creating Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness

Virtual reality can be used to create non-ordinary states of consciousness. Extensive evidence shows that mindfulness and transcendental meditative states can be helpful at a genetic and cellular level.

Art that induces these states of consciousness can be presented in the metaverse.

6. Providing Nurturing Community

The metaverse can provide a nurturing community that protects people genetically predisposed to depression, and social support significantly impacts mental health.

It can be a space that fosters social support and community, particularly for those who may not have access to it otherwise.

However, policymakers and companies will need to consider issues of accessibility to prevent the digital divide from preventing these benefits from reaching those who need them the most. 

Virtual Reality Therapy for Mental Health

Virtual reality therapy (VRT) is a new approach to treating psychological conditions that differ from traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

With VRT, a therapist can adjust a simulated environment to determine what might trigger a patient’s anxiety and at what level. This allows the therapist to understand patients’ reactions better and create personalized treatment plans using data analysis.

VRT systems also offer the ability to replay virtual scenarios, which can help patients become more comfortable in anxiety-inducing situations and eventually overcome their fears.

One specific type of VRT is virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET), which places individuals in a 3D environment to help conquer their fears such as a fear of heights or phobias. VRET can also be used to help victims of violence.

Another form of VRT involves talking to a therapist while using an avatar in a computer-generated environment. This approach has proven successful in creating a virtual support group for people with Parkinson’s disease.

Although VRT is a relatively new form of therapy, early research shows promising results in treating mental illnesses.

For example, a 2022 study in JMIR Serious Games found that VRET has a success rate of 66% to 90% for those with PTSD when used in conjunction with CBT.

While most existing research focuses on VRET, studies suggest that VRT using avatars could be an effective alternative to in-person therapy for individuals with social anxiety or depression. 

What is the Difference Between VRT and Teletherapy?

Online psychotherapy and support, sometimes called telepsychology or teletherapy (or e-therapy or zoom counseling), involve clients communicating with therapists via video chat. 

On the other hand, virtual reality therapy uses a computer-simulated world (CSW), like a computer game or headset, to immerse users.

When appropriately implemented, CSWs can provide significant treatment benefits for many mental health issues. 

Popular Applications of VR in Mental Healthcare

While no trials haven’t been reported using therapeutic tools in the metaverse for psychiatric disorders, VR, mixed reality (MR), and augmented reality (AR) have emerged as popular treatment and diagnostic tools for mental health conditions.

VR technology has long been utilized in treating mental illnesses, and the metaverse presents a promising avenue for patients to reap the benefits of both AR and VR technology. 

Let’s explore some of the most recent ways that the metaverse has been used in the field of mental healthcare.

1. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety, Phobias

Using VR technology for social skills training has proven effective in enhancing communication skills and boosting self-esteem in individuals with social anxiety. VR environments also offer a controlled setting for treating phobias, which has shown success.

For patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), VR-based exposure therapy has been beneficial. 

For instance, caregivers can create customized virtual environments that simulate the specific combat scenarios relevant to the patient’s trauma, allowing them to develop coping mechanisms and appropriate responses. 

Many hospitals, army bases, and university centers have implemented “Bravemind,” a VR exposure therapy system that promises to reduce trauma, suicidal ideation, depression, and anger in soldiers with PTSD. 

2. Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Therapists and researchers have used VR since the mid-1990s to create immersive environments that help individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to communicate and connect with the world around them. 

One such system is Floreo. It uses immersive environments to teach social, behavioral, speech, and motor skills to individuals with ASD. 

VR has also been used to help individuals with ASD prepare for stressful situations and public speaking, as well as combat phobias such as:

  • Fear of public transport,
  • Classrooms, Balloons,
  • Animals. 

Autistic children with phobias were treated using an immersive therapy called the Blue Room in a recent study. The treatment involved immersing the children in a 360-degree interactive display without requiring them to wear a VR headset.

Video source: YouTube/Newcastle University

3. Stress and Pain Management

Virtual reality offers a unique approach to managing stress and pain through immersive scenarios. 

In addition, thanks to the brain’s neuroplasticity, VR applications can help “rewire your brain” as you learn new coping and distraction skills.

Research has indicated that VR applications are more effective than traditional therapy in managing depression, anxiety, fatigue, and pain. 

In addition, patients with chronic illnesses can use VR to recreate environments outside the hospital, promoting a change of scenery and improving their mental health. 

By immersing users in virtual environments, VR has the potential to provide simple yet effective forms of distraction that can alleviate stress and pain. 

4. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Innovative solutions have emerged in diagnosing and treating ADHD in children with the development of virtual reality-based tools

Continuous performance tests using VR have been implemented to teach patients new coping behaviors, which have led to better symptom management and increased productivity in their daily lives.

For example, the FDA approved EndeavorRx, the first video game-based therapy for any condition, as a treatment for ADHD in 2020. 

The game tasks children with racing a character through obstacle courses that require focus, multitasking, and avoidance of distractions, all of which help train attention control. 

The difficulty level adjusts in real-time to keep children challenged, and they encounter stimuli designed to target the brain regions involved in attention. 

Another example of VR used in treating ADHD is XRHealth, which has also introduced a VR therapy app for ADHD to improve attention, organization, and planning skills and reduce impulsive behavior. 

5. Eating Disorders

Virtual reality exposure therapy can help in treating binge eating and bulimia nervosa. In one of the studies, participants who received a combination of VRT and CBT showed more body image improvement than those who received only CBT. 

After the treatment and during the one-year follow-up, the VR group showed progress in their body attitudes, frequency of negative thoughts related to body image, satisfaction level, discomfort in situations related to the body, and symptoms of bulimia nervosa. 

Another study used a body-swapping illusion with virtual reality to modify a person’s allocentric memory. 

The study found that women who experienced body image anxiety and took part in the illusion experienced a reduction in their perceived body size. Additionally, they could assess their body size more accurately than their previous assessments.

Emerging Technologies and Future Applications

The mental health care future looks promising with the emergence of the metaverse.

This new technology, especially extended reality (XR) (an umbrella term covering AR, VR, and MR), can train new physicians, particularly those in psychiatry, where physical examination is not critical. By incorporating XR, the way psychiatric care is provided can be transformed.

In addition, it may improve the efficacy of treatments such as brain stimulation and biofeedback, leading to better patient care. With the expected growth in the XR and metaverse industries, it is anticipated that medical and psychiatric interest in leveraging these technologies will increase.

However, ethical and safety challenges must be addressed before moving psychiatric care into the metaverse.

All responsible parties need to be cautious and conscientious in ensuring that the metaverse is a safe, accessible, just, and equitable environment for all users. Building this digital society in a way that prioritizes people’s needs is crucial.

To establish the effectiveness of VR therapy and persuade insurance companies to include it in their coverage, additional research is necessary.

While previous research has yielded positive findings, wider acceptance is still needed. For example, the most effective therapy offerings should provide headsets to patients directly to ensure access to the most well-researched, cutting-edge treatments. 

Wrapping Up On Metaverse and Mental Health

The metaverse in mental healthcare has the potential to provide cost-effective and efficient mental health services, which is important as access to them is limited due to budget cuts, staff shortages, and increased demand.

Using the metaverse for therapy offers several advantages, such as:

  • Combating unconscious bias,
  • Addressing significant mental health challenges,
  • Offering accessibility and affordability,
  • Creating non-ordinary states of consciousness,
  • Providing a nurturing community.

The bottom line, by providing access to virtual environments that simulate real-life situations, metaverse and VRT can help individuals overcome their mental health challenges in a safe and controlled environment.

Although there are challenges, researchers, technologists, and investors are working to overcome them.

As a result, the metaverse is becoming more prominent in our lives, and with the proper attention, it could become one of the best use cases for mental health care.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Keep up-to-date with the latest developments in artificial intelligence and the metaverse with our weekly newsletter. Subscribe now to stay informed on the cutting-edge technologies and trends shaping the future of our digital world.

Neil Sahota
Neil Sahota (萨冠军) is an IBM Master Inventor, United Nations (UN) Artificial Intelligence (AI) Advisor, author of the best-seller Own the AI Revolution and sought-after speaker. With 20+ years of business experience, Neil works to inspire clients and business partners to foster innovation and develop next generation products/solutions powered by AI.