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Virtual Reality and AI in Transforming Mental Healthcare

Authored by Jamie Li

Art by Jenny Li

Approximately 5% of Americans have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which translates to 13 million people. Although this number varies from region to region, it is still a major issue that impedes the well-being of many individuals. Despite its great impact, it is often overlooked by society. 

Traditionally, PTSD is treated with either psychotherapy, drugs, or a combination of both. Although these methods can reduce and suppress the symptoms of PTSD, they cannot fully cure patients. Recently, a team at the University of Central Florida used virtual reality (VR) to help long-term hospital patients overcome PTSD.  There are possibilities of treating or preventing PTSD with new technology and artificial intelligence (AI). The scope of these technologies is not only limited to PTSD but other mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression.

Realistically, the amount of people who have PTSD can be much greater than 5%. According to a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, surveying organizations utilize different criteria to determine if individuals have PTSD, leading to great discrepancies. In fact, with DSM-5 criteria, 89.5% of people in their sample have PTSD [1]. Traditional measures of PTSD, such as surveys and forms, have a limited extent in assessing individuals' conditions. They cannot process all of the personalized symptoms and experiences of a specific person. However, AI can fill in the blank and give people a more clear understanding of their conditions. AI has algorithms that can analyze and study vast amounts of results and samples within a concise amount of time. AI can create detailed and personalized treatment plans from these analyses that can better serve the patients [2]. The development of AI offers an accessible and accurate way for people to gauge their mental health and conditions. The AI can recognize and treat PTSD, as well as other disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder.     

Another technology, VR, tackles the causes of PTSD directly by creating a controlled, immersive environment that allows patients to revisit and process traumatic events in a safe space. Researchers combine VR with exposure therapy, unlike traditional exposure therapy, which might overstimulate patients and further the damage. VR gives doctors and psychiatrists absolute control of the content and environment that the patients are exposed to, which greatly reduces their chances of enduring greater trauma. This innovative approach helps patients to manage their trauma in a guided and supportive fashion. VR therapy has shown promise in desensitizing individuals to their traumatic memories from battle. Studies have been conducted on a group of veterans who had over 5 years of combat in desert regions. They were separated into two groups: one who received traditional therapy and the other who received the revolutionary  VR treatment. The results of the study conclude that the VR treatment was more effective in minimizing the symptoms of PTSD than the traditional methods. The veterans in the VR treatment group saw a much greater extent of desensitization of desert elements [3].

PTSD is an issue that deserves to be known by more people in society. However, with the help of new technology, one can see a greater improvement in this issue.

Works Cited

  1. Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S., Milanak, M. E., Miller, M. W., Keyes, K. M., & Friedman, M. J. (2013). National estimates of exposure to traumatic events and PTSD prevalence using DSM-IV and DSM-5 criteria. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26(5), 537-547.

  2. D'Alfonso, S., Santesteban-Echarri, O., Rice, S., Wadley, G., Lederman, R., Miles, C., ... & Alvarez-Jimenez, M. (2017). Artificial intelligence-assisted online social therapy for youth mental health. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 796.

  3. Rizzo, A., Difede, J., Rothbaum, B. O., Reger, G., Spitalnick, J., Cukor, J., ... & Parsons, T. (2010). Development and early evaluation of the Virtual Iraq/Afghanistan exposure therapy system for combat-related PTSD. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1208(1), 114-125.

  4. Hoermann, S., McCabe, K. L., Milne, D. N., Calvo, R. A., & Hadjistavropoulos, H. D. (2017). Technological advances in psychotherapy: implications for the assessment and treatment of depression. JMIR mental health, 4(1), e3.

  5. Bogdanovych, A., Trescak, T., Simoff, S., & Si, M. (2018). Intelligent virtual agents for coaching in mental health. In International Conference on Intelligent Virtual Agents (pp. 69-76). Springer.


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