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Can the metaverse boost mental health by improving access to therapy?

Love it, loathe it or just don't get it, the metaverse is here to stay. With it comes new realms of possibilities (quite literally) across all areas of everyday life from making new friends, to shopping for makeup and clothes, to attending live events like music concerts and comedy gigs.

One other area that could likely from the potential benefits of the metaverse is mental health treatment. While it might seem like a somewhat unlikely candidate, mental health professionals are getting excited about the metaverse's ability to provide truly immerse experiences to a worldwide audience with ease and efficiency and, hopefully, economic viability. Currently, access to mental health services is dangerously limited with budget cuts, staff shortages and a huge surge in demand in recent years, meaning long wait lists for NHS treatment and high prices for private alternatives.

“Technological advances have also given rise to alternative interventions, which are more affordable, flexible and effective in reducing symptoms of different mental health disorders,” says Vasiliki Gkofa, Incoming Clinical Psychologist in Doctoral Training at the Private Therapy Clinic. “One such advances is Virtual Reality (VR), which involves the immersion in a computer-generated environment. According to research findings, VR intervention has been shown to be more effective than traditional therapeutic interventions for a range of difficulties including depression, fatigue and pain."

Recently, King's College London opened its innovative IoPPN Virtual Reality Research Lab (VR Lab) to examine the potential of VR in enhancing well-being and resilience, as well as treatment for established mental health disorders, including psychosis, eating disorders, and depression.

“VR presents an exciting opportunity to intervene in or prevent mental ill health in children and young people, through its appeal to the younger generation, its portability and cost effectiveness, and the fact we can train non-professionals to deliver VR assisted therapy," Consultant Clinical psychologist Dr Lucia Valmaggia, who leads the lab, said in a statement. “Our goal is for VR to be routinely used outside the clinic, in schools and in the home.”

While Zoom and telephone sessions have offered a lifeline during lockdowns, virtual reality therapy could provide the next step up in remote treatment, providing an even more engaging alternative for those unable to attend in person. “If used properly, the metaverse could be a way to offer support and break boundaries in treatment provision due to location and time constraints. For example, the ability to travel due to mental health challenges such as anxiety or agoraphobia could be now met with the virtual opportunity to talk to someone in need,” says Dr Rachael Molitor, behavioural psychologist and lecturer at Coventry University.

Plus, there are certain treatment methods that could be even more effectively carried out in an immersive environment, namely exposure therapy. "In addition, the metaverse could help people to face new challenges within therapy without the physical fear of being in that situation such as exposure therapy in such conditions as OCD or certain phobias,” adds Dr Molitor.

That's not to say an avatar-based, virtual experience is right for everybody, and the metaverse in itself presents novel barriers to entry. “The demographic is very specific,” notes Dr Belynder Walia, psychotherapist and anxiety expert at Serene Lifestyles. “You will need competent technology users; those who are spatially aware can competently coordinate, have the full cognitive ability, are very able and are open to transition from one reality to what they may consider an alternative reality.”

Plus, there's the worry about dissociation and the idea that a patient could further detach from reality by entering the metaverse. “I often find there is a risk to a person’s psyche if too many places they are spending time in are not physically real,” says Dr Walia. “Some people with severe mental conditions might be unable to differentiate their physical 3D world from the world they create in the metaverse."

While there's still much to be determined about the logistics, safety and efficacy of mental health treatment in the metaverse, with many questions yet to be answered, it's safe to say that there's significant potential. “With the increasing amount of evidence, one could argue that it could revolutionise the provision of mental health treatment,” says Vasiliki Gkofa. Now, that's an idea we can all get on board with.

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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