Healing the Mind and Body in the Metaverse: How Virtual Reality Is Changing the Mental Health Track

Virtual reality technology is “naturally” suitable for use in psychotherapy.

Healing the Mind and Body in the Metaverse: How Virtual Reality Is Changing the Mental Health Track

core content

1. Virtual reality technology provides a better psychotherapy environment with the characteristics of immersion, privacy and flexibility that it can provide;

2. VR equipment and technical and psychological research resources are the main barriers to competition;

3. Virtual reality technology or the next outlet in the domestic mental health market.

In recent years, mental health issues have gradually become an important challenge facing society, and around the world, the economic impact of the new crown epidemic and changes in social styles have further exacerbated the situation. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that by 2030, mental disorders will be the leading cause of the global disease burden. In low-income countries, 75% to 85% of people with mental disorders remain untreated, and nearly 1 million people commit suicide each year. Major factors hindering the delivery of effective mental health care include a lack of trained health care providers and psychotherapy resources, as well as social stigma associated with mental disorders. In 2020, the median number of mental health workers per 100,000 people in countries around the world was only 13. And there are huge differences between countries at different income levels, with more than 40 times as many mental health workers in high-income countries as in low-income countries.

The mental health software market is growing rapidly as advances in artificial intelligence, speech recognition, and optical recognition technologies provide conditions for online and remote therapy in the face of scarcity of treatment resources. In November 2021, Global Industry Analysts released a report on the global mental health software market. The global market for mental health software in 2020 is estimated to be $1.9 billion and is expected to reach $4.5 billion by 2026, with a compound annual growth rate of 14.9% . The report points out that medical reform and an aging population are driving the development of the U.S. mental health market, with the U.S. mental health software market estimated to reach $806 million in 2021. The growing awareness of mental health software in China and India is driving the demand for mental health software in the Asia-Pacific region, with China’s mental health software market estimated to reach USD 305.8 million in 2026.

Virtual reality therapy is an emerging track in the mental health software market.

VR mental health technology

In healthcare, the latest applications related to virtual reality include robotic surgery, mental health and psychotherapy, pain management and physical therapy. According to the Facts and Factors market research report, the global virtual reality in healthcare market size and share revenue is expected to grow from USD 2.7 billion in 2020 to USD 40.98 billion in 2026, with a compound annual growth rate of 34.89%.

Virtual reality environments can stimulate cravings and physiological responses, and affect emotional states, attention, cognition, and brain activity. The idea of ​​using VR technology for mental health treatment can be traced back to the mid-1990s. In recent years, the advancement and cost reduction of VR headsets have made it more feasible and easy to use. At the same time, the research on VR-assisted treatment has become more fiery and mature. The most established use of VR-assisted therapy is in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental illnesses in the world. According to WHO statistics, anxiety disorders cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity each year, and 1 in 13 people in the world are affected by anxiety disorders, the most common of which are specific phobias, major depressive disorders, and social anxiety disorders. phobia.

At present, the most mature virtual reality psychotherapy method is VR exposure therapy, also known as VRET ( Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy). VRET is a behavioral therapy method in which participants are deliberately shown a scary object or anxiety-inducing experience in a simulated environment. The rationale for this approach is that gradual and repeated exposure to specific simulated environments that trigger anxiety in patients can lead to a reduction in anxiety over time. For example, people with social anxiety disorder are placed in virtual workplaces or job interviews, or people who are afraid of public speaking are placed in virtual classrooms or conference rooms.

The immersion and privacy of virtual reality environments allow them to provide a better experience than traditional clinical settings. The virtual reality environment can reduce the interference caused by the surrounding light and the environment in the artificial treatment, and make it easier for the patient to focus on the treatment scene through a more realistic scene. More importantly, exposure therapy requires patients to face scenes and objects that they are more resistant to, which can lead to avoidance behaviors in patients. Virtual reality, on the other hand, provides a way for participants to experience a simulated environment safely and confidentially. When performed in VR rather than a real environment, patients were more willing to undergo exposure therapy and had less avoidance behaviors.

The virtual reality environment also brings more flexibility and convenience to the treatment scene . VR environments can simulate reality and are not limited by space and time. VR also allows for the creation of unethical, illegal or dangerous environments in real life to aid therapy. For example, environments that correspond to addiction treatment—including bars and the like—are deemed unsafe for patients during manual therapy, but such scenarios can be presented in a virtual reality environment. And virtual reality technology also makes it possible to switch and customize multiple scenes.

Healing the Mind and Body in the Metaverse: How Virtual Reality Is Changing the Mental Health Track

Screenshot of a virtual reality treatment kit for public speaking phobia (Source: virtuallybetter)

Virtual reality environments can also help testing and evaluation move from post-hoc to real-time . In traditional laboratory studies, addiction phenotypes are usually assessed post-exposure, outside of the exposure environment, according to research on addiction at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Using the embedded VR tool CONVIRT to test the battery, neuropsychological functions such as attention, decision-making and visual processing speed in the VR simulation can be assessed in real time. The advantage of this is that specific cues that trigger addiction can be found more precisely, and it provides the possibility to adjust the VR simulation environment in real time according to the patient’s response.

Virtual reality therapy is not limited to the diagnosis of a patient or a specific stage of the patient care process, but can be used for daily mental health adjustment and to assist patients at any stage with initial assessment, diagnosis, treatment and follow-up care. In a HealthXR study using a multi-user virtual reality telepsychotherapy system (MUVR) to address eating disorders, researchers found that a well-designed, gamified multi-user The virtual environment system MUVR was also successfully designed through specific interventions, allowing participants to express their emotional concerns and to address psychological barriers that caused behavioral problems in their interactions with therapists.

The teletherapy possibilities and automation trends brought about by virtual reality technology can also make up for the lack of mental health treatment resources. Research by HealthXR shows that VR therapy at home is feasible, and even in certain situations, physical distancing between patient and therapist can enhance therapy outcomes. Interacting through a virtual avatar will make the patient feel less “judged,” increasing comfort and security. Virtual avatars are also being used to automate therapy. Oxford’s Health Biomedical Research Centre has developed a virtual coach called Nic, which can work like a therapist. The VR sessions the team designed didn’t require a live therapist to be present every time.

Writing in Scientific American, Brennan Spiegel from one of the world’s largest medical VR projects, the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Laboratory in Los Angeles, argues that the psychotherapeutic application of VR technology “has now reached an inflection point. The technology is cheap enough, quality It’s good enough, and the scientific research rich enough, to seriously consider using VR to improve mental health at scale through home therapy .”

Competitive barriers and existing players

VR equipment, content production technology and psychological research resources, or the main barriers to competition in the virtual reality psychotherapy industry .

Current VR simulations can bring “cyber sickness”: nausea, headaches, vomiting, and spatial disorientation. Moreover, the sense of immersion greatly affects the patient’s treatment experience. This makes psychotherapy have higher requirements for hardware and software used in virtual reality environments than other application scenarios. In addition, although fixed, disease-specific VR kits can be made like games, the need for customized scenarios and complex interactive features will increase, and writing such interactive simulations can be time-consuming.

In addition to the high requirements for the interaction technology required for VR equipment and content, the development of virtual reality therapy products also needs to rely on the resources of a strong psychological research team. Among the current market players, there are many company founders who have a background in psychological research projects. For example, OxfordVR and its Rey are based on the Oxford University Mental Health Disorder VR Laboratory created by OxfordVR founder Prof. Daniel Freeman. Research; Dr. Barbara Olasov Rothbaum, founder of virtually better, is the director of the trauma and anxiety recovery research project at Emory University, and has published more than 200 academic papers, mainly for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and anxiety disorders. In addition, the company will also improve its research level by forming research teams and publishing papers. For example, XRHealth has published more than 40 academic papers in major psychology or medical journals in the name of the company’s research team, involving virtual reality. In the fields of psychotherapy, pain management, postoperative rehabilitation, etc.

The current virtual reality psychotherapy players are mainly concentrated in Europe and the United States, and the footprints of well-known companies in the field of VR-related hardware or software have not yet been seen in the influential platforms. Most of the companies with a long history started with a background in psychology research. In recent years, there have been some founders with unrelated business backgrounds. At this stage, products have evolved from fixed virtual therapy content/environment to being customized based on demand, and some companies are trying to add more automated interactive elements .

Cooperating with specific medical institutions is the business model of most companies in the early stage , and this model has gradually developed into a mature scale platform. An example is Psious, a platform for therapists themselves or small groups of therapists. The product provides 1-5 accounts at different levels . Psious offers different tiered plans that deliver virtual reality therapeutic content through a monthly subscription . All plans include a VR kit, unlimited access to the Psious VR platform and environments included with each plan, as well as access to the Psious Academy and marketing resources. Psious currently has 2,000 customers and is used by a total of 20,000 patients in 70 countries.

Healing the Mind and Body in the Metaverse: How Virtual Reality Is Changing the Mental Health Track

Healing the Mind and Body in the Metaverse: How Virtual Reality Is Changing the Mental Health Track

VR equipment and virtual reality platform for customers (Source: Psious)

In addition, teletherapy platforms where patients pay for themselves have also emerged. Rey, a membership-based pay-as-you-go mental health platform launching in 2021, offers treatment for phobias, PTSD, social avoidance and psychosis, powered by OxfordVR. Members can receive treatment remotely from their home, with initial pricing starting at $36 per session and $295 for a monthly subscription.

VR: The next outlet for China’s mental health market?

In China, mental health problems have become one of the main problems faced by urban young people. Although this issue has been widely noticed by the media in recent years, the lack of awareness of mental health in the past and the “taboo disease and avoiding doctors” have made the mental health industry lack sufficient funds and talents to support the development of the industry for a long time. According to public data, the overall incidence of various mental and psychological diseases in my country is 17.5%, and the number of people with mental and psychological diseases and the number of people in need of medical services reaches 250 million, while the number of practicing physicians in clinical psychiatry is only about 45,000. gap.

At present, domestic mental health services and products mainly include: professional psychological counseling, including psychological counseling in public hospitals and licensed psychological counselors in private institutions; offline mutual aid activities, including spontaneous workshops, group therapy and other activities; Employee psychological care services purchased by the company, such as offline lectures, etc.; online pan-psychological platforms, such as meditation apps, psychological popular science public accounts such as Knowyourself, psychological counseling apps such as Songguo Talk, and mindfulness courses for young people, etc.

Digital diagnosis and treatment platforms and digital therapeutics supported by artificial intelligence (Digital therapeutics) are the current investment hotspots in the domestic mental health field . In 2021, among a total of 14 investment events in the field of mental health classified by IT Juzi, 4 companies, “Yidianling”, “Simple Psychology”, “Good Mood” and “Zhaoyang Doctor”, are Internet+/digital diagnosis and treatment companies. platform, and have received hundreds of millions of investment ; four companies, “Xihu Xinchen”, “Zheng’an Health”, “Wangli Technology” and “Xiaotong Health”, involve AI technology or digital therapy; in addition, brain science is also included. Medical device company “Hui Chuang Medical”, meditation app “FLOW Meditation” and pan-psychology platform “KnowYourself”.

Healing the Mind and Body in the Metaverse: How Virtual Reality Is Changing the Mental Health Track

Investment events in the field of mental health in 2021 (Source: IT Orange) 

The role of the digital diagnosis and treatment platform is to collect information and help patients more easily connect with professional psychotherapy institutions or practitioners. However, professional psychotherapy itself leaves unresolved obstacles in China. For example, professional psychotherapy mainly includes two types of methods: psychological counseling and drug treatment. Psychiatric drugs are often accompanied by side effects and sequelae when they are used frequently or for a long time. Psychological counseling requires a long period of time to complete, and is highly dependent on the professional level of the therapist. In the case of uneven professional level and high price, it often makes people look backward. VR psychotherapy can not only avoid the possible side effects of drugs, but also reduce the uncertainty of patients’ psychological treatment and increase their willingness to pay . In addition, the cultural environment also makes it easier for people to accept the remote and private therapy that VR can provide.

For AI+digital therapy, which is gaining popularity, VR technology can be used as a supplement or upgrade to existing AI+digital therapy due to the advantages of immersion and high interaction shown by the above-mentioned studies.

In addition to professional treatment, the pan-mental health market also faces the problem of willingness to pay. Consumers, especially young people, are very willing to participate in pan-mental health activities. For example, the sleep aid apps “Little Sleep” and “Tide”, the psychological popular science public account “KnowYourself”, and various offline activity workshops are very popular among young people. However, almost all sleep aid apps use white noise. Although there are many scenes that provide white noise, the professional threshold is low and it is difficult to create differentiation. Although offline activities can generally charge a certain fee, like group therapy, it is more difficult to replicate and scale by testing the level of the individual organizer. If VR technology is used to create pan-psychological health content, such as virtual scene roaming to relieve anxiety or immersive remote multi-person psychological counseling activities, it can improve the entry threshold of the industry on the existing basis and provide more differentiated services. Possibly , to create a competitive company.

Healing the Mind and Body in the Metaverse: How Virtual Reality Is Changing the Mental Health Track

KnowYourself Urban Practice Space (Source: KnowYourself) 

At present, my country has first-class companies in VR hardware equipment and VR content production technology required for virtual reality psychotherapy, which are capable of producing and providing this product. Combining psychological research resources is the next step. Therefore, perhaps like the current participants in European and American countries, the top universities in psychology research may become the birthplace or main partner of the founding team. 

The opinions in this article are for reference only and do not constitute investment advice.

Posted by:CoinYuppie,Reprinted with attribution to:https://coinyuppie.com/healing-the-mind-and-body-in-the-metaverse-how-virtual-reality-is-changing-the-mental-health-track/
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