Virtual coach offers gameChange to therapy

2 min read

Trials of a virtual reality program dubbed gameChange have shown that a ‘virtual coach’ can have life-improving impacts on patients that require psychological therapy.

gamechange
(Image: OxfordVR)

In the largest ever clinical trial of VR for mental health, the automated therapy was shown to work well for patients diagnosed with psychosis. The trial, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), is detailed in The Lancet Psychiatry.

The gameChange VR program was developed by a multi-partner team of university, health and industry experts including OxfordVR, an Oxford University spin-out that has created immersive technology for mental health. It is led by researchers at Oxford University and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, and targets a problem that is common in people diagnosed with psychosis, namely intense fears about being outside in everyday situations.

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For many patients, these fears develop into a severe agoraphobia that means they avoid leaving the home, severely disrupting relationships with family and friends, their education, and careers. GameChange is designed to treat this agoraphobia and help patients re-engage with day-to-day activities.

In a statement, Prof. Daniel Freeman, lead researcher, Department of Psychiatry, Oxford University and NIHR senior investigator, said: “Virtual reality psychological therapy has come of age with gameChange. Over the past 25 years VR has been used in a small number of specialist mental healthcare clinics. It has supported in-person therapy delivered by a clinician. However, with gameChange, the therapy is built in, so it can be overseen by a range of staff. And it can be delivered in a variety of settings, including patients’ homes.

‘We are delighted that gameChange has produced excellent results for people with some of the most challenging mental health problems. Individuals who were largely housebound have got back outside. Using today’s affordable and easy-to-use consumer VR equipment, we think gameChange will lead a transformation in the digital provision of evidence-based psychological therapy, with deployment at scale for treatments that really work.”

The use of gameChange is said to have led to ‘significant reductions’ in the avoidance of everyday situations and in distress. It was found that the patients who benefitted most were those who found it hardest to leave the house, and those with most psychiatric symptoms, such as severe anxiety, depression, delusions, and hallucinations. These benefits were maintained at the six-month follow-up and patient feedback showed that the treatment had very high up-take rates.

Access to effective psychological therapies has been hampered by a shortage of clinicians. The problem is especially acute for people with severe mental health difficulties, such as psychosis. Patients are keen to try psychological interventions, but seldom receive them.

A participant in the gameChange trial commented: “After seven years of illness, I do feel so much better. I’ve been able to make eye contact with people more, without feeling really anxious, I’ve been able to walk down a street without worrying about anyone walking towards me. I’m now able to go into a café. I feel much more confident about going on a bus. I just feel so much more confident than I was.”