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Simon Hattenstone experiences the pioneering work done by Professor Daniel Freeman and other leading specialists across the world into treating mental health disorders using virtual reality.

Nowican Nowican/Oxford VR

Extract from article published in The Guardian, 7 October 2017.

'... Freeman has been working with VR for 16 years. What he loves about this therapy is its simplicity. “There are very few conditions VR can’t help,” he says, “because, in the end, every mental health problem is about dealing with a problem in the real world, and VR can produce that troubling situation for you. It gives you a chance to coach people in other ways of responding. The people I see are anxious or depressed, or worried about people attacking them, and what they’ve done in their life is retreat from the world. With VR, you can get people to try stuff they haven’t done for years – go in lifts, to shopping malls, then they realise they can do it out in the real world.”

'Acrophobia, or the fear of heights, is just the start, Freeman says. He has already developed VR programs that treat people with paranoia – for example, placing them in virtual libraries, lifts or on tube trains with strangers eyeballing them. In a Medical Research Council-funded study, he used VR with 30 patients to help them re-learn that they are safe around other people. 

'“The results were remarkable. From just 30 minutes in VR, there were large reductions in paranoia. Immediately afterwards, more than half the patients no longer had severe paranoia. Importantly, the benefits transferred to the real world. It wasn’t a definitive study. It was small and short-term, but the results do show great potential.” The program will initially be used in NHS mental health services with a staff member present, but Freeman believes that, ultimately, it could be available commercially.'