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Social environments and mental health

Exploring new worlds with virtual reality
PhD ceremony:dr. C.N.W. (Chris) Geraets
When:October 27, 2020
Supervisor:prof. dr. W.A. (Wim) Veling
Co-supervisor:dr. M. van Beilen
Where:Academy building RUG
Faculty:Medical Sciences / UMCG
Social environments and mental health

With virtual reality (VR) glasses, you can enter a completely different world within seconds. Computer-generated VR simulations of real-like environments can trigger psychological and physical reactions, such as anxiety, sweating or joy, similar to the reactions in real life. This characteristic of VR simulations - feeling real- makes VR a powerful tool for assessment, therapies and research in mental healthcare. With this thesis, we experimentally investigated how people behave in VR environments. We found that people with and without a vulnerability for psychosis maintain similar interpersonal distance to other visitors in a virtual café. Further, we found that emotion recognition in faces of VR simulated people and real people is very similar. This finding supports that virtual emotional stimuli – i.e., emotions on virtual faces - are suitable for research and training of emotion recognition skills.

Next, the effects of a novel VR cognitive behavioral therapy (VR-CBT) were investigated in patients with a psychotic disorder and patients with a generalized anxiety disorder. During VR-CBT patients practice within virtual environments which they tend to avoid in the real world. They could practice in a VR bar, streets, bus and supermarket environment. VR environments were personalized by the therapist to fit the specific needs of the patient. The VR-CBT intervention was effective in reducing paranoia as well as social anxiety in everyday life. Currently, several mental health care institutes in the Netherlands are offering VR-CBT as a treatment.