This is a Guest Blog by Mr. Aarul Malviya, Founder of Zamit

It goes without saying that the new-age edtech is transforming the entire learning journey for students and learners. And among other things, virtual reality has proved to be a key technology prompting and shaping a deeply immersive and interactive learning experience for them.

Virtual Reality Therapy: A Breakthrough for Student Mental Health

But not many are aware that virtual reality can even be leveraged to make psychological interventions and treat people including students for their mental health conditions. Indeed, lying at the confluence of virtual reality technology and the realm of psychological tools and techniques, virtual reality therapy (VRT) has been known to address several mental health issues including a range of phobias, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, acute and chronic pain, addiction etc. Although the idea of using virtual reality for therapy is not entirely new, the advent of modern VR headsets and related paraphernalia has really given a new momentum to VRT.

How VRT works 

Employing a VR headset or a computer game and creating a computer-generated 3D virtual world, VRT uses the innate ability of virtual reality technology to simulate real-life situations and interactions. As such, it can elicit physiological and psychological responses from individuals including students, responses that can be measured by the level of stress hormones and other biological indicators such as heart rate or breathing rate, sweat response, blood pressure etc. When combined with psychological techniques such as cognitive behavior therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and psychodynamic therapies, virtual reality can show good results with students and other patients. 

Common mental health conditions among students

In an increasingly competitive educational and work environment, students have been found to be particularly vulnerable to a wide array of mental disorders, anxieties and phobias. From the widely known exam and academic performance related anxieties, to worries pertaining to their upcoming achievements or possible failures in cocurricular and extracurricular activities, to the usual peer pressure forcing them to conform to the beliefs and expectations of others, to the fear of speaking or participating in a public event, to the fear of handling oneself socially with other students, to the fear of being taken away from parents and loved ones, to the fear of the dark and the supernatural elements, and to phobias such as that of height or a water body, young students are going through a lot in their everyday lives. In technical terms, some of these conditions can be roughly categorized as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, phobias including social phobias, among others.      

Why VRT can be effective with young students

With such a wide range of worries and mental conditions possibly afflicting students, virtual reality therapy emerges as a powerful mode of treatment. One of the biggest reasons why VRT can be particularly helpful with young students is the fun and the novelty factor associated with it. Using a VR headset or a computer game-driven virtual environment would be a huge attraction for students who would be naturally expected to cooperate more with the therapist examining him. One common type of VRT is what is termed Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy or VRET, which involves exposing the patient or the student in this case to anxiety or phobia-inducing stimuli. A big advantage of using VRET is that the therapist has complete control over the treatment environment and depending on the nature or the magnitude of the disorder can increase or decrease the intensity and the duration of the exposure to the student patient. Another advantage is that an extreme event involving physical danger and that has been a source of constant anxiety for the student can be easily replicated in the virtual environment ‘safely’ while allowing the therapist to carry out relevant therapy. In other words, VRT can provide stimuli for young students who are unable to envisage imaginary scenarios and are extremely resistant to experience real situations. As such, VRT is more practicable as compared to real physical therapy sessions. Equally important is that VRT saves students from embarrassment in front of other students and allows them to maintain their privacy.        

A few illustrations of VRT’s efficacy for students

There are studies that attest to the success of VRT on students with mental conditions. A study found VRT successful with students who suffered from public speaking anxiety (PSA), a condition that also impacts a large number of adults too. Similarly, there are studies wherein VRT has been found to have reduced levels of anxiety, stress and pain among children. In another study, it has also helped children in experiencing reduced pain while undergoing painful medical procedures. In fact, VRT has even been found to show promise for improving motor skills of children.

In sum, VRT holds great potential for the treatment of school children with mental conditions. Today, there are commercially available VRT systems in the market meant exclusively for psychology professionals and therapists. In fact, there are headsets being developed now that don’t even require an external computing device. So, thanks to virtual reality technology, young students can both learn and get treatment for their mental/emotional conditions.   

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