10 Virtual Reality Applications for Mental Health
In yesterday’s article, we talked about how virtual reality (VR) simulations can be effective in helping surgeons perform preoperative planning because they immerse the user in such a way that the brain makes new connections as it learns. Aside from the obvious gaming applications, VR may now be at a tipping point where it stands to transform many industries including mental health. While neuroscientists begin to explore how VR affects the brain, it’s already being used to effectively treat various mental health conditions.
There are over 450 different mental disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. Many of these can be treated or alleviated with a group of methods called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – a therapy that aims to change deep-seated thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that negatively distort our view on life. Another large group of anxiety disorders including phobias is regularly treated with exposure therapy where patients are exposed to the source of their anxiety without ever being in danger. By repeatedly going through the experience unscathed, patients can rewire their brains and overcome their fears. Virtual reality is an efficient medium to deliver such therapies and it can also help in quick and accurate patient assessments. We scoured the web to find ten examples of startups using VR to treat various mental conditions.
|Limbix||Fears, Addiction, Mindfulness||Palo Alto, California||7|
|Oxford VR||Anxiety, Psychosis, Fear of Heights||Oxford, UK||4.2|
|Psious||In-person Therapy + VR and Biofeedback||Barcelona, Spain||1.2|
|Happinss||Employee Stress Management||San Jose, California||0.27|
|Openmind 360||Teenage Mental Health||Israel||0.14|
|MindCotine||Quitting Smoking||San Jose, California||0.13|
|Rendever||Depression and Isolation of the Elderly||Cambridge, Massachusetts||0.04|
|Cognitive Leap Solutions||Attention Disorders of Children||Pasadena, California||undisclosed|
|AppliedVR||Chronic and Acute Pain and Anxiety in a Hospital Setting||Los Angeles, California||undisclosed|
|Virtue Health||Dementia, Menopause, Heart Disease, Arthritis||London, UK||undisclosed|
Founded in 2016, Silicon Valley startup Limbix has raised $7 million from investors including Sequoia Capital to develop a VR system for healthcare institutions that treats fears, addiction, depression, and teaches mindfulness and meditation. The startup’s medical-grade VR headset doesn’t require an internet connection but uses Bluetooth to run VR content from a tablet. The VR library contains many scenarios for exposure therapy including fears like agoraphobia, claustrophobia, or fear of public speaking. Each of these therapies can be customized to gradually increase the exposure of patients to their fears.
Limbix also offers a number of apps focusing on CBT techniques like mindfulness and meditation, and education materials for teens on overcoming depression. The company has a strong pipeline of new apps developed jointly with leading research institutions including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. Subscriptions start at $200 a month for private practices and include the VR kit as well.
Spun out of the University of Oxford in 2016, Oxford VR has raised $4.2 million to develop cognitive VR therapies for psychosis and fear of heights. The startup’s applications are delivered by a virtual coach that patients can interact with using voice recognition. Personalized scenarios help patients learn coping strategies they can take back and implement in the real world. A clinical trial conducted among patients with a fear of heights has shown an average reduction of the phobia by 68% among participants, though the company doesn’t share how they measure the extent of that reduction.
The startup is also using its know-how to develop a solution for the treatment of psychosis, a condition of the mind that results in difficulties determining what is real and what is not. The joint three-year project involves a consortium of healthcare trusts, universities, a mental health charity, and the UK’s Royal College of Art. The resulting therapy will benefit psychotic patients of the UK’s National Health Service. Oxford VR has also partnered with the UK’s AnDY Research Clinic to develop VR solutions for social anxiety in young people as well.
We first came across Psious a few years back in our article on “15 Virtual Reality Startups in Healthcare”. Founded in 2013, the Barcelona, Spain startup has raised $1.2 million to develop a platform for therapists that provides VR experiences that adapt to a patient’s biofeedback in real-time. The therapist can see what the patient sees in the VR environment in real-time while receiving data on the patient’s level of distress so the simulation can be adjusted accordingly.
The platform helps patients fight many mental conditions including fears, stress, addiction, anxiety, and depression. Subscription packages for therapists start at $44 a month and $1500 will provide a year’s worth of unlimited sessions for a clinical practice.
Founded in 2017, Silicon Valley startup Happinss has raised $270,000 to develop an employee stress management solution that uses VR and biometric feedback to help when someone has a case of the Mondays. The VR kit takes users to beautiful natural locations around the world and combines the immersive experience with therapeutic music and guided mindfulness meditations. Biometric sensors record body response, so users can see how the experience affects their stress levels and track their progress. Happinss has installed its first VR wellness room at the Guadalajara operations center of Amdocs, a software provider for the media industry. Following the relaxation room’s success, the company plans on deploying it in its other offices as well, bringing Happinss’ solution to its 28,000 employees globally.
Founded in 2016, Israeli startup Openmind 360 has raised $140,000 to organize educational VR workshops for teenagers on various mental health topics. According to the company, one out of five teenagers faces some kind of mental distress and one out of ten has suicidal thoughts. Only 20% of those in need reach out for psychological help. Openmind’s Feeling 360 program consists of three 90-minute workshops that deal with mental disorders common in adolescence like shaming and depression. Kids can use the integrated mobile app to influence the video outcomes with their choices which are later used in the research and development of future courses. The program, endorsed by the Ministry of Education of Israel, aims to destigmatize mental conditions and empower youngsters to act if they notice someone close to them suffering.
Founded in 2017, Silicon Valley startup MindCotine has raised $130,000 to develop an exposure therapy that helps people quit smoking. The therapy uses mindfulness techniques to promote self-awareness and coping skills in smokers so they can manage cravings and change the habit in 21 days. Patients need 10 minutes of guided VR exercise daily that is combined with audio and community support throughout the day. MindCotine offers its tailored program to clinics, insurance companies, and employers with a corporate presence in Silicon Valley and Argentina.
Founded in 2015, Cambridge, Massachusetts startup Rendever has raised $40,000 to develop VR tools for the cognitive stimulation, socialization, and therapy of adults living in elderly care facilities. According to the startup, half of the residents in senior living communities experience depression and isolation at one point during their stay. Rendever allows them to take part in family reunions, revisit their favorite places, and travel to different new locations around the world.
The combination of reminiscence therapy and new experiences has shown to increase resident happiness by 40%, the company claims (without telling us how exactly they calculate happiness percentages). Rendever is currently looking for corporate partners for the initial launch of the service, and content providers to boost their VR library.
Founded in 2015, Pasadena, California startup Cognitive Leap Solutions has raised an undisclosed amount to develop assessment tools and therapies for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). First, children’s conditions are assessed and thoroughly analyzed using a VR application. Based on the results, the company recommends an 8-24-week holistic coaching program that includes a mix of cognitive methods, exercise, sleep, and optimal nutrition. In the background, big data algorithms analyze patient input and refine the treatment mix on an on-going basis. The company is developing its solutions in partnership with renowned research universities including Harvard and Stanford. Cognitive Leap has also established three subsidiaries in China to destigmatize and alleviate the country’s mental health problems. These educate children and parents about the condition, train teachers of mindfulness techniques, and teach mindfulness.
Founded in 2015, Los Angeles, California startup AppliedVR has raised an undisclosed amount to develop VR therapies that treat the pain and anxiety associated with physical illnesses. The company’s VR library offers breathing and meditation exercises, distracting games, and virtual visits to other parts of the world. Users have reported anxiety levels decreased by 60% and pain scores by 24% on self-reported scales. AppliedVR is promoting these treatments as alternatives to painkillers and medical marijuana, adding that it leads to faster recovery times with fewer side effects and no addiction potential. The company is currently running a pilot program for a new VR experience called Ease VR that combines all the important elements of its existing apps into one – breathing exercises, mindfulness, coping skills training, and pain education. The startup is working closely with Los Angeles hospital Cedars-Sinai which is also an investor in the venture.
Founded in 2018, London, UK startup Virtue Health has raised an undisclosed amount to develop VR solutions for the elderly. Its Lookback app, developed jointly with the University of Oxford, improves cognitive health, mental health, and quality of life for people suffering from dementia through reminiscence and cognitive stimulation.
Another app called Eva is a self-help platform using CBT techniques to assist women in managing the effects of menopause. The third offering, called Hiro, creates a personalized lifestyle change and mental health program for people suffering from heart disease to prevent further episodes. The last app dubbed Nio supports the elderly suffering from arthritis by recommending a mix of physical exercise, optimal nutrition, and stress reduction techniques. Virtue offers its solutions to employers with an age-diverse workforce as well, highlighting the billions of dollars’ worth of lost productivity due to these conditions.
The fact that these companies have been founded recently (nine out of ten were established in the last four years) and the relatively low funding amounts suggest using VR in mental health is in the early stages. The use cases are diverse both in terms of conditions treated and target audience which shows that the technology can meaningfully contribute to the global mental health crisis. Considering that 13 million lives could be saved each year if mental illnesses were treated properly, VR is a welcome addition to the many ways in which technology is being used to democratize mental health care.