Virtual reality being tested on CU Anschutz campus to treat mental illnesses, fears

AURORA, Colo. -- Everyone is afraid of something, but facing our fears might soon not have to come with real world danger. Clinicians on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora are studying the emerging technology of virtual reality to treat mental illnesses and fears.

“Our job is to really find out where the intersection of this kind of tool and the field sticks,” said Mimi McFaul, Deputy Director of the National Mental Health Innovation Center. “VR basically puts you in a simulated environment that can expose you to a number of different practice environments."

Most of the clinical studies with virtual reality have been done with adults, but there are requests for younger children to get involved. Clinicians hope to use the 3D setting as a way to help patients face their fears and get real time reactions.

“We hope this and other technologies can be kind of a gateway to understanding where technology can solve problems in mental health that we have had for a long time,” said McFaul.

McFaul said most clinical exposure for therapy with VR follows a six to eight session treatment pattern. The visual and auditory simulation makes the VR world come to life for those going through the sessions.

While VR cannot completely replace the work of a trained clinician, it’s a tool to help solve problems in mental health or prevent them from developing further.

“(It's) engaging new people that might never come in through a therapy door and getting them earlier in the process,” said McFaul.

VR is currently being used in the Department of Corrections in Alaska as a training tool for inmates.

“It’s used as a tool for relaxation and focus and also a potential tool for re-entry,” said McFaul. “The computer-generated kind of environments needed to teach someone what they are going to be exposed to when they leave an environment and go back into the community. 'How do I get a job? Can I do a job interview?' And practice for something I haven’t had to do for eight years while I have been incarcerated or in a treatment program.”

VR treatment is just in the beginning stages, but the hope is that over the next few years it will become more accessible for those who might benefit from it.

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