In China, Mental Health Care Goes Virtual

Virtual reality is touted as having the potential to transform how doctors diagnose and treat a number of mental illnesses, and the front lines of this revolution may be forming in China.

Virtual reality is touted as having the potential to transform how doctors diagnose and treat a number of mental illnesses, and the front lines of this revolution may be forming in China. The country’s troubled psychiatric services are notoriously swamped, a situation signaling that its market is wide open for innovation - and that developers have an opportunity to leapfrog past traditional care models and make China an early adopter of VR psychiatry on a large scale.

VR psychiatric applications include immersing patients in simulations that seem real, exposing their brain but not their body to challenging situations and helping them learn to hone their physical and emotional responses. For example, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder can visit a virtual version of Iraq or Afghanistan from the safety of a therapist’s office, an alcohol-addicted patient can sit at a virtual bar without drinking, and a person too anxious to fly can “experience” takeoff and landing while staying firmly on the ground. Such treatments can yield fast, dramatic results: in one case a woman with a debilitating fear of heights could calmly ride an escalator after a three-hour course of VR exposure therapy.

Researchers around the world have been testing these technologies with promising results. Through the end of 2016, peer-reviewed journals had published nearly 300 studies on using VR to treat mental health disorders (although many were small and of mixed quality). And then this March, JAMA Psychiatry published what researchers say is the first ever randomized controlled trial of a therapist-free VR intervention of acrophobia, or fear of heights. It found the technology to be effective, inexpensive and well-received by patients.

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