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VR successfully treats agoraphobia in first-of-its-kind trial

Image of a virtual reality headset
Vinicius "amnx" Amano / Unsplash

News round-up / by Conor D'Andrade

The largest clinical trial using virtual reality (VR) therapeutically for mental health has been published this week.

Researchers developed an automated VR therapy where the user is guided by a virtual coach rather than a human therapist.

The therapy is aimed at individuals diagnosed with psychosis, who can often feel intense anxiety towards having to go outside. As a result, some people with psychosis become isolated indoors, which can develop into agoraphobia – a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.

This intense fear can often lead to important relationships breaking down and everyday tasks are made impossible to complete.

Image from the gameChange virtual reality platform
Image credit: NHS

gameChange placed trial participants in scenarios they would face every day, without the stresses they would experience in the real world

Titled gameChange, researchers designed the software to help people with agoraphobia re-engage with day-to-day activities while exposing them to a virtual world outside their homes – and it worked.

gameChange significantly reduced the amount participants avoided situations and the amount of distress they experienced while doing so.

The participants who benefited the most were those that experienced the most intense psychiatric symptoms and so also found it the hardest to leave the house.

This is a really promising development for treating agoraphobia in individuals diagnosed with psychosis, as pointed out by Lead Researcher and Consultant Psychiatrist at Oxford Health, Professor Daniel Freeman:

“gameChange can be delivered in a variety of settings, including patients’ homes. Individuals who were largely housebound have got back outside. Using today’s affordable and easy-to-use consumer VR equipment, we think gameChange will lead a transformation in the digital provision of evidence-based psychological therapy, with deployment at scale for treatments that really work."

This comes in the same week that researchers from Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital in West London set out to determine whether the trauma of miscarriage can be reduced by using therapy and other activities in VR.

Canada to introduce controversial assisted dying for mental illness

Next year, Canada will allow patients with severe and ‘incurable’ mental illnesses to receive medical aid in dying (MAID) – a practice that has been legal in Canada for adults with a terminal illness since June 2016.

As of March 2023, the government will allow MAID for individuals experiencing a severe mental illness, which must be determined by a clinician to be “irremediable” by any treatment.

Informed consent must also be provided, proving that the individual receiving MAID is ‘mentally competent’ and that their decision is not due to outside influence.

Many experts have been keen to point out the danger of this change in the law. Canadian researchers recently published a study examining MAID for psychiatric conditions in the Netherlands, where it has been a regulated law since 2002.

The report makes clear the issues that surround defining a mental condition as truly untreatable clinically, due to mental health illnesses not having “prognostic predictability” as physical health conditions do.

90% of MAID applications made in the Netherlands are declined by psychiatrists, demonstrating the dangers potential applicants slipping through might pose.

Dr Grainne Neilson, a forensic psychologist from Halifax and the former president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, told the National Post:

“I think there’s going to be lots of uncertainty about how to apply this in March 2023, my hope is that psychiatrists will move cautiously and carefully.”

Lack of accessible space causing mental health problems

New research conducted by the self-storage company Stashbee has found that 29% of low income families experience mental health issues due to living in cramped accommodation, with around 24% needing extra storage space but not being able to afford it.

According to Stashbee, because of high occupancy in rates in storage facilities due to the pandemic, many are struggling to access space for their belongings. They suggest this contributes to the reason that 12% of low-income earners were storing their belongings across multiple properties.

Anthony Pain, co-founder and chairman of Stashbee said:

“The pandemic put a renewed focus on our homes and highlighted more than ever that having enough space to live comfortably is not just desirable, it’s essential for a balanced life.

"There are clear trends to show that people simply don’t have access to the space they need. Meanwhile, there are at least 2.5 billion square feet of unused storage and parking space in this country that could be put to work.”


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