Virtual reality could be used as therapy for patients with severe mental illness, if a study taking place in the North East is successful.
A £4m project will see researchers examine how the futuristic technology could help people experiencing serious mental episodes.
People who suffer from psychosis tend to experience symptoms including hallucinations – hearing voices or other sounds, seeing things which aren’t there – or delusions, unshakeable and sometimes paranoid beliefs in things which aren’t true.
This, experts say, can make everyday situations seem much more threatening, often meaning people avoid leaving their homes.
The new study, which involves experts from the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust (NTW), will examine an “innovative” technological solution to this problem alongside a number of other health trusts, charities and universities.
The idea is that cutting-edge Virtual Reality (VR) technology will let people practice everyday skills in a computer-simulated world, to make it easier for them to approach real life problems.
Professor Daniel Freeman, the head of the study working in Oxford, explained: “What we’ve found is that too many patients with severe mental health difficulties become frightened, they don’t want to leave the house, everyday activities become difficult and they withdraw from life, and that makes people feel worse.
“The beauty of VR is that even when you have a severe fear of a situation, you tend to be much happier going into a VR simulation, because you know it’s not real, you can try things you wouldn’t normally feel comfortable with. But you get the experience, and build up your confidence, for when you’re confronted with that situation in real life.”
Prof Freeman said he has seen positive results using this technique on a small scale, and hopes this study will show the method to be something that could be rolled out across the NHS.
Dr Robert Dudley, who is leading the study on behalf of NTW, said the experiment could cut costs and enable more people to access effective treatment.
He added: “The cost of VR therapy is a fraction of that for standard therapies so the potential to cut overall treatment costs by improving health and reducing time spent in hospital is a big incentive”.