UPDATED: Virtual Reality in the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety

Photo by Nathan Cowley from Pexels

I have been up-front about my lifelong battles with clinical depression on this blog. I’m doing my small part to help fight the negative societal stigma against mental health problems, by sharing my story. If doing so helps one other person who may be struggling, then it’s worth it to me. And a great many people are struggling. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada:

Mood disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses in the general population. According to Statistics Canada’s 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) on Mental Health, 5.4% of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over reported symptoms that met the criteria for a mood disorder in the previous 12 months, including 4.7% for major depression and 1.5% for bipolar disorder.

I’ve been under a doctor’s treatment for depression since my mid-twenties, and I probably would have benefitted from seeking treatment even sooner than that. At times, my episodes of depression have been so severe that I have had to go on extended sick leaves from work. I’ve even been hospitalized twice when I was at my very worst. I have had to work very hard to crawl back from the edge of the black pit of despair, more than once in my life.

I first got my Oculus Rift headset back in January 2017, when I was on sick leave for depression from my job, and my life was feeling pretty bleak. Shortly afterwards, I also got the Oculus Touch hand controllers to be able to handle objects in VR.

I have no scientific proof, but I do believe that using that VR headset regularly—creating art using TiltBrush and Oculus Medium, using apps like Guided Meditation VR and Nature Treks VR, and interacting with other avatars and exploring new experiences in High Fidelity and the then-closed Sansar beta—was indeed a beneficial factor in my most recent recovery from depression. The best way I can describe it was that VR got my neurons firing again!

Some would no doubt argue that too much use of a VR headset is isolating, which I can understand if you are only playing solo games, or spending innumerable hours immersed in VR. However, in many games, and especially in most social VR spaces, you are often interacting with other people, which would counteract the isolation aspect somewhat. I also strongly recommend taking the time to build up your tolerance to VR, starting from sessions as short as 10-15 minutes, and building up slowly from that. I am a little concerned when I hear about people who boast logging 5, 6, 7, 8, or even more hours at one stretch in VR. Everything in moderation is the key here.

And when you’re too depressed to set foot outside your front door, it can sometimes be easier to slip on a VR headset to visit people and places! No need to get dressed up, or to put on your “happy face” to face the world. There have often been times in the past when I have felt extremely anxious, and I was able to load up the Nature Treks VR app in my Oculus Rift and relax on a calm, sandy beach lined with swaying palm trees, listening to the pounding surf, or just put myself within a mountain-ringed meadow of wildflowers, watching birds and butterflies. Much cheaper than an actual flight to a vacation spot! And you can revisit any time you like, with very little fuss.

To date, there really hasn’t been much in the way of rigorous scientific investigation into the effect of VR on mood disorders. A recently published review of research in the area concluded:

Findings favor VR exercise in alleviating anxiety and depression symptomology. However, existing evidence is insufficient to support the advantages of VR exercise as a standalone treatment over traditional therapy in the alleviation of anxiety and depression given the paucity of studies, small sample sizes, and lack of high-quality research designs. Future studies may build upon these limitations to discern the optimal manner by which to employ VR exercise in clinical settings.

So more research work needs to be done. Based on my own experience, and stories I have heard from others, I wouldn’t be surprised if/when scientists do discover some sort of benefit to using VR as a form of therapy for those who suffer from depression and anxiety. Perhaps some day soon, your mental health professional may prescribe a VR app instead of (or in addition to) anti-depressant medication and talk therapy!

And if you are suffering from a mood disorder, there’s absolutely no shame in reaching out for help. Doing so has made all the difference in my life. If I can survive, so can you!

UPDATE May 5th: Today I just read a great talk by actor Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation) who is open and candid about his own lifelong struggles with anxiety and depression. He says:

So I am here today to tell anyone who can hear me: if you suspect that you have a mental illness, there is no reason to be ashamed, or embarrassed, and most importantly, you do not need to be afraid. You do not need to suffer. There is nothing noble in suffering, and there is nothing shameful or weak in asking for help. This may seem really obvious to a lot of you, but it wasn’t for me, and I’m a pretty smart guy, so I’m going to say it anyway: There is no reason to feel embarrassed when you reach out to a professional for help, because the person you are reaching out to is someone who has literally dedicated their life to helping people like us live, instead of merely exist.

If you are currently experiencing a mental health or addictions related crisis:

If you are not in crisis, but still need help, here are some other good places to get started:

When you absolutely need someone to talk to online, one of the best places to try is The KindVoice subReddit and Discord channel, both of which are staffed by volunteers: “Sometimes we need to hear a human voice on the other end of the line telling us that everything’s going to be ok. This subreddit is for people that aren’t in a suicidal crisis, but feel depressed, alone, or want someone to talk to.”

Whatever you do, don’t give up. NEVER. Give. Up!

UPDATE June 19th: There is now a new official KindVoice Discord server. The original server I linked to above still exists as a service, but it is now called Zen Gardens. Both seem like pretty good places to go if you just need someone to talk to online.