Trials of a virtual reality program called gameChange have shown that a “virtual coach” can have life-enhancing effects on patients in need of psychological therapy.
In the largest-ever clinical trial of VR for mental health, the automated therapy was shown to work well for patients diagnosed with psychosis. The trial, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), is detailed in: The Lancet Psychiatry†
The gameChange VR program was developed by a multi-partner team of university, health and industry experts, including: OxfordVR, a University of Oxford spinout that created immersive technology for mental health. It is led by researchers from Oxford University and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trustand focuses on a problem common to people diagnosed with psychosis, which is intense fears of being outdoors in everyday situations.
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For many patients, these fears develop into severe agoraphobia, meaning they avoid the home, severely disrupting relationships with family and friends, their education and career. GameChange is designed to treat this agoraphobia and help patients return to daily activities.
In a statement, Prof. Daniel Freeman, Principal Investigator, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford and Senior Investigator of the NIHR, said: “Virtual reality psychological therapy has come of age with gameChange. Over the past 25 years, VR has been applied in a small number of specialist mental health clinics. therapy supported, delivered by a clinician, however, with gameChange, the therapy is built in so that it can be supervised by a range of staff, and it can be delivered in a variety of settings, including patients’ homes.
“We are delighted that gameChange has delivered outstanding results for people with some of the most challenging mental health issues. People who were mostly housebound have gone outside again. By leveraging 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 massive commitment to treatments that really work.”
The use of gameChange is said to have led to a ‘significant reduction’ in avoidance of everyday situations and in distress. It turned out that the patients who benefited the most were those who found it most difficult to leave the house, and those with the most psychiatric symptoms, such as severe anxiety, depression, delusions and hallucinations. These benefits were maintained at the six-month follow-up and patient feedback showed that the treatment had a very high acceptance rate.
Access to effective psychological therapies is hampered by a shortage of clinicians. The problem is especially acute for people with serious mental health problems, such as psychosis. Patients are eager to try psychological interventions, but rarely get them.
One participant in the gameChange trial commented, “After seven years of illness I feel so much better. I’ve been able to make more eye contact with people without feeling really anxious, I’ve been able to walk down a street without worrying about it.” someone walked up to me. I can now enter a cafe. I feel much more confident when I go on the bus. I just feel so much more confident than I was.”