Using virtual reality to improve mental health

Dr Jamil El-Imad, inventor and virtual reality expert, shares his views on how virtual reality can treat mental health conditions and how it can democratise wellbeing.

Imagine you are sitting in your home, wearing headsets. You close your eyes and when you open them after few moments, you can see a beautiful beach on Easter Islands along the Pacific Coast.  Or perhaps hear the fluttering of prayer flags in a monastery nestled somewhere in the Himalayas.

Created by Dr Jamil El-Imad, an inventor, entrepreneur and research fellow at London’s Imperial College, the Dream Machine produces an immersive experience for mindfulness training to help treat mental health conditions such as anxiety, stress-related disorders and phobias.

The Dream Machine provides virtual meditation by using a VR headset combined with a mobile EEG headset to monitor brain activity, along with other wearable sensors to monitor ECG signals, breathing patterns and any trace of physical activity. The EEG front signals are processed using advanced algorithms to gauge the level of user concentration and relaxation in real time. At the end of the session, the patient is given a recording of how long they were able to concentrate along with a score, which can be improved, essentially training people to concentrate and focus on therapeutic mindfulness.

The idea of using therapeutic mindfulness as an alternative to treat mental health conditions has gained credence in the past few years. New evidence suggests that it can be useful in treating anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Dr El-Imad points out that VR technology can help in democratising these experiences as well.

“You don’t have to be rich and go to these exotic places to meditate and relax. You can be living in a in a one-bedroom flat in a polluted and congested city but still have access to these experiences and learn to control your mind and feel positive,” he says.

In fact, it can be used to cure the attention deficit disorder especially among children. “It is a big problem among children and this can be a fun way to teach them how to concentrate.”

With mobile phones, tablets, wearables and other digital devices overtaking modern life, even adults are susceptible, he adds.

Challenges ahead

Dr El-Imad thinks we are still quite far off from using such technologies within acute mental health settings as it is still not fully digitised, which should be a prerequisite, before moving on to these sophisticated technologies. Another reason, he states, is that the status quo of using pills to treat mental health conditions remains prevalent, and people haven’t thought of doing things differently until recently.

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