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VR for mental health

Game changing study: Could VR help severe mental health conditions?

Published on: 4 July 2019

A game changing study which will see technology used to help people suffering from mental illness is beginning a clinical trial.

It will test whether virtual reality (VR) based psychological therapy could help people with severe mental health difficulties.

The “gameChange” studyis the largest ever clinical trial of virtual reality for a mental health disorder, with over 400 patients in Newcastle, Manchester, Bristol, Nottingham and Oxford taking part.

The study is led nationally by Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and is being delivered by partners including Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (NTW) which provides mental health and disability services in the North East, and Newcastle University.

The organisers hope that VR technology may be able to transform NHS provision of psychological therapy.

Dr Rob Dudley, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at Newcastle University and Consultant Clinical Psychologist and lead for the gameChange VR study at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Many people with psychosis find it hard to cope with busy social situations and may avoid places that they need or want to go to.  By using virtual reality technology treatment people can experience feared places like a local shop, cafe or GP surgery in a virtual environment which feels real enough to allow people learn how to manage, and that they are safer than they feel.

“We very much hope that people will be able to take this learning into the real world letting them do more whilst feeling less anxious or distressed around other people.

“We are especially pleased to have involved a group of local service users from an early stage in the process. The service users have acted as a steering group helping oversee the delivery of this study, and we would like to thank them for their amazing support.”

Daniel Freeman, gameChange lead researcher, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford said: “The gameChange VR therapy is for people with conditions such as schizophrenia whose fears have caused them to withdraw to such an extent that everyday tasks – such as getting on a bus, doing the shopping, speaking to other people – are a challenge. It aims to help patients re-engage with the world and go into everyday situations feeling more confident, calm and in control.”

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Taking part in the study

Patients taking part in the study will be provided with a series of 30-minute sessions using VR technology, with a virtual coach guiding them in how to overcome their fears.

The technology allows participants to practise at their own pace the experience of a range of everyday situations. The virtual coach is animated using motion capture and the voice of an actor and provides information on how to overcome anxiety. 

Funded by the National Institute for Health Research, the study lasts 18 months and aims to find out whether VR therapy works.

To do this, half the participants will receive the VR therapy and half will not. A comparison will then be made to see how the people who received VR therapy got on compared to those who did not receive the therapy.

People in the North East with severe mental health conditions who meet the criteria for the study are encouraged to apply to take part and to be a participant in the studies individuals need to be in receipt of care from one of NTW’s psychosis pathways, from community mental health treatment teams, inpatient settings or Early Intervention in Psychosis services.

In the North East, NHS staff have worked closely with a local group of service users who have had support from NHS mental health services, to support the study, trial the VR equipment and act as a steering group providing oversight for the study.

For more information on taking part in the gameChange trial email, or call NTW’s Early Intervention in Psychosis service on 0191 4416598 and ask for one of the gameChange team.


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