This summer, the University Center for Psychiatry (UCP) will start using virtual reality to treat psychotic patients with symptoms of paranoia and social anxiety. The patients concerned will be carefully exposed to a controlled virtual environment. The UCP, part of the UMCG, is collaborating with the Parnassia Groep from The Hague and CleVR, a company from Delft that has created four virtual worlds for the purposes of the research. The treatment is new in the Netherlands; this is the first time that psychotic patients have been treated in a virtual reality environment.
Patients will be gradually exposed to an environment in the virtual world, which can be manipulated by the psychologist in charge of the treatment. Patients move around this alternative world using a joystick and special virtual reality glasses. The position of the person wearing the glasses is constantly monitored and the scene changes every time he / she moves, giving him/her the impression of walking along a busy shopping street, travelling on a bus, shopping in a supermarket or visiting a bar. ‘Virtual reality allows us to adjust the number of people in the virtual world, modify their behaviour, make them friendly or hostile and even dictate what they say’, says psychiatrist Wim Veling, head of the UCP psychosis team. ‘We can also increase the complexity of the environment and the level of exposure for patients. The idea is that patients will become less anxious, learn to cope with their feelings of paranoia and will ultimately stop feeling the need to avoid social situations.’
Veling thinks that virtual reality will complement existing forms of cognitive behavioural therapy, in which people learn to change negative thoughts and practise with situations that cause anxiety. ‘Cognitive behavioural therapy is difficult for psychotic patients, who are often very suspicious. They may perceive eye contact with a stranger as a threat, and assume that they are the subject of other people’s conversations. In extreme cases, they may even think that people are conspiring against them or that they are being followed. It is not easy to persuade these people to venture out onto the street to practise. Using virtual reality, they can gradually get used to a safe environment. The therapist is in a better position to treat the patient as he/she gains a better understanding of how much the patient can take. In this way, virtual reality therapy can complement behavioural therapy.’
Veling hopes that this research will provide insight into the impact of environmental factors on psychotic patients; this can now be studied in depth using virtual reality. In addition to the Parnassia Groep, Veling is working alongside a number of other mental healthcare organizations on this project, namely GGZ Noord Holland Noord, GGZ Delfland and Pro Persona.
Read more about this research into virtual reality treatment.
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