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New Zealand Trials Mental Health App

Studies show that 80% of people with anxiety disorders, amounting to 67.2 million people, receive no treatment. Now, reports say that a clinical trial involving the University of Otago, Christchurch, researchers and a South Island tech company in New Zealand intends to take the growing mental health issue head-on.

The trial will use a smartphone app called “oVRcome” developed to treat patients with phobias and anxiety. The research team will initially be looking at mental issues relating to social anxiety, fear of heights, flying, needles, dogs or spiders. The app is paired with a headset to immerse participants in virtual environments to help treat their phobia.

The oVRcome system draws on principles of exposure therapy, a proven and effective form of treatment, which removes the need to create real-life experiences and scenarios. Exposure therapy is a treatment approach where people face their feared situations, with the guidance of a therapist. It is one form of treatment that can be used to reduce excessive anxiety symptoms, such as those presented by someone with social anxiety.

With the virtual reality headset, what you can see, or experience, is a range of situations that can bring about a range of emotions. It might present the patient with a serene beach scene, or a splendid mountain view. But in the instance of exposure therapy, it is utilised to gradually expose patients to the things they fear the most. As such, exposure regarding social anxiety might involve a situation that someone might avoid due to a fear of being judged or embarrassed, like delivering a presentation to a group of people. Over time, these exposures will become easier to manage and experience, this is because the goal of entering such a virtual, social situation is to assist sufferers in recognising specific triggers, facilitating learning that reduces their fear-based beliefs and even an opportunity to practice coping strategies and techniques.

Virtual reality exposure therapy forming the basis for treatment can yield very positives results, as researchers have found recently.

In a meta-analysis of research conducted to ascertain the effectiveness of virtual reality exposure therapy in October last year, it was found that it is an effective approach to treating individuals with social anxiety. This conclusion was drawn on the basis that the data was showing a decline in social anxiety symptoms. So, using emerging digital technology to support the treatment of anxiety disorders is a possible pathway well worth exploring. In particular, the gradual easing into social experiences through virtual reality and guided cognitive behavioural therapy is a win for those with social anxiety. The control factor which the technology offers cannot be underestimated as a crucial element in the success of the approach.

The tech developer was inspired to develop oVRcome after becoming increasingly alarmed by mental health statistics. Recognising that access to mental services was a key issue, they began working with a team of psychologists to develop an accessible smartphone-based tool to help.

It is estimated that 80% of anxiety sufferers do not seek treatment because of certain barriers that include cost, location of the patient, the stigma of going to a psychologist and the lack of trained psychologists. Now, COVID-19 has accelerated the comfort with remote healthcare. This presents an opportunity to address those mental health statistics and provide more accessible support to those in need, said the tech developer.

While there is an increasing number of mental health apps available, many have not undergone clinical trials. So, the tech developer is looking forward to work with the experienced team at the University of Otago and exploring the true potential of the app to make treatment more accessible and affordable for more people.

The Senior Lecturer of the Department of Psychological Medicine said that this builds on their research into talking treatments for mental distress and they hope to see this use of technology can increase access to effective treatments for people across New Zealand.

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