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VRDC Speaker Q&A: Jennifer Hazel on utilizing VR during exposure therapy


Jennifer Hazel is a medical doctor specializing in Psychiatry who founded the CheckPoint Organization and will be at VRDC 2017 to present her talk Virtual Reality for Treatment of Phobias, which will discuss current understanding of what makes a VR experience effective for phobia treatment from a psychological, physiological and technical point of view. Here, Hazel gives us some information about herself and her work.

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Tell us about yourself and your work in VR/AR

I’m a psychiatry doctor and the founder of CheckPoint, a nonprofit organisation which connects mental health resources with video games and technology. The exciting work being done to introduce VR into treatment for mental health issues is particularly of interest, and I’ve been following it closely.

Without spoiling it too much, tell us what you’ll be talking about at VRDC

If you attend the talk, you’ll learn about the history of exposure therapy for anxiety disorders, phobias, PTSD and OCD, including what our current “gold standard” of treatment is and how we can integrate VR technology. We’ll discuss what clients like about VR in treatment and how we can approach future projects from a design and application perspective to make them most useful.

What excites you most about VR/AR?

If you are one of the 1 in 2 people who experiences a mental health issue at some point, you’ll know that recovery can be a long and hard road. And considering how sparse public funding is, if you can get it covered you’re one of the lucky ones. VR (and other technological solutions) can bring so many other options to the table in terms of what we can offer. This could revolutionise the mental health journey for countless individuals.

What do you think is the biggest challenge to realizing VR/AR’s potential?

The collaborative effort between skilled clinicians and developers I think will be the biggest barrier. This is a shame, as VR solutions for other serious applications have been well developed and shown to be very effective.

What kind of phobias and disorders can VR help to treat or manage?

So far we’ve seen that VR can be an effective treatment for flying phobia, social phobia, arachnophobia (and other small animals including insects and dogs), dental phobia, fear of falling, claustrophobia, acrophobia and public speaking anxiety (amongst others).

How is exposure therapy inside of VR different for the patient?

Exposure therapy sounds terrifying but it is a very effective way of treating phobias, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. It involves gradually introducing the client to the thing that triggers them – whether it be social situations, spiders, flights, etc. Usually the first step is imagining, then looking at pictures, and so on – all the way to actually facing the situation in real life. However prior to this technology being available there was a huge step up that needed to be taken between not-real and real. How can you simulate being on a bridge without actually being on a bridge?

The answer is VR. In a way that tricks your senses into experiencing the stimulus as though it was real, we can provide conditioning to the brain in an environment that is safe, controlled, and that most importantly, the patient knows isn’t real. This means that by the time they’re actually up on that bridge, they have seen what it will be like and learned the techniques they need to get them through the experience in a more profound way. This is revolutionary for both the clients and the clinicians helping them through their recovery.

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