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“VR could reduce NHS waiting lists at all levels”

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Emmy-nominated journalist and former head of BBC VR  Zillah Watson speaks to Health Tech World about the future of Virtual Reality in depression and mental health…

Depression treatment is changing.

What was once a one-way street to complex pharmaceuticals is becoming a wider, more varied landscape of tech solutions. As the world gets more comfortable inside a VR headset, the possibilities for tech in the mental health space are vast. 

In England alone, the number of prescriptions for antidepressants has almost doubled in the past decade, with over 20 million prescriptions between January and March 2021.

In the US, approximately 13% of the adult population are taking such medication to cope with depression. 

These numbers seem even bigger when you take into account recent reports that it might not be an imbalance which is causing the problem. Is it time for technology to take the reins for a while?

Virtual Reality for mental health 

Zillah Watson was the commissioning editor for Virtual Reality & head of BBC VR Hub between 2017 and 2020. In an interview with Health Tech World, she explained how “new solutions” must be found in order to tackle the mental health crisis in the UK and beyond. 

She added: “Countless studies have demonstrated VR’s value in treating mental health conditions. The challenge now is developing evidence based VR products that can be routinely subscribed at scale.”

NHS in crisis 

Around 1.6m people in the UK are currently waiting for specialised mental health treatment, with an additional 8 million who can’t even get on a waiting list. VR, says Zillah, is a “perfect solution” to prescribe when waiting lists are unmanageable.

VR solutions in action

Zillah, along with producer Katie Grayson bring years of experience of designing multi-award winning VR content across a wide range of sectors and delivering it to global audiences. They have partnered with a world leading practitioner of clinical hypnotherapy, Ursula James to found Phase Space, a company with a mission to use VR to bring a step change in mental health support. 

Their first product, Livewire, is focused on reducing stress and anxiety for students, particularly around exams. Using VR results in easier, quicker and longer lasting reduction in stress and tension than non-VR therapies. 

Zillah continued: “Products such as Livewire can bring very quick relief while waiting for other treatment, and in some cases could avoid the need for more costly solutions.

“As a preventative tool to help individuals with their mental wellbeing, it is the equivalent of going to the gym or improving your diet to avoid physical ailments. 

“And using VR has the benefit over mobile mindfulness and meditation apps that may currently be prescribed as it is proven to be quicker and more effective.

VR and waiting lists 

“In short, VR could reduce NHS waiting lists at all levels, from products such as Livewire aimed at alleviating symptoms at an early stage and avoiding the need for further and more costly treatments, through to solutions designed to provide more effective treatments for acute cases thereby reducing hospital stays.”

NHS uptake of VR

Virtual Reality is making its mark in health services around the world, and has already been implemented into some NHS services. Patients can use VR to help combat social anxiety through a VR social engagement program, whilst breakthrough success has been reported in automated psychological therapy using VR tech. 

These are just some examples suggesting that the future of mental health treatment could well begin from behind a Virtual Reality headset.

Zillah continued: “The next stage is implementing evidence based solutions at scale.

“Getting full approval for new digital clinical tools takes time but the XR Healthcare Alliance is doing stirling work to make it easier to break through some of these hurdles, and to support VR companies with mental health solutions.”

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