The new VR project, which is believed to be the largest ever clinical trial of its kind, is being spearheaded by the University of Oxford and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.
“It aims to help patients re-engage with the world and go into everyday situations feeling more confident”
Under the trial named the “gameChange”, mental health patients in Newcastle, Manchester, Bristol, Nottingham and Oxford will be given a series of 30-minute sessions where they will use VR technology to experience “feared places” such as shops or GP surgeries.
The technology uses a virtual coach, which is animated using motion capture and the voice of an actor, to provide patients with information on how to overcome anxiety and guide them through their fears.
Those behind the trial, which was launched on Monday, have said the study will be used on people who have conditions such as schizophrenia, whose anxieties and fears have caused them to withdraw from everyday tasks.
They hope the technology will transform the NHS provision of psychological therapy, by allowing participants to practise tasks at their own pace.
Funded by the National Institute for Health Research, the study will last for 18 months and aims to find out whether VR therapy works for those with a severe mental health disorder.
To do so, half the participants will receive the VR therapy and half will not.
Following this, a comparison will then be made to see how patients who received the VR therapy got on, compared to those who did not.
“By using virtual reality technology treatment people can experience feared places”
Dr Rob Dudley
Lead researcher for the project and consultant clinical psychologist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, Daniel Freeman, said: ”The gameChange VR therapy is for people with conditions such as schizophrenia whose fears have caused them to withdraw to such an extent that everyday tasks – such as getting on a bus, doing the shopping, speaking to other people – are a challenge.
“It aims to help patients re-engage with the world and go into everyday situations feeling more confident, calm and in control,” said Mr Freeman, who is also a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford.
Trusts taking part in the project include: Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust; Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust; Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust; and Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust.
Consultant clinical psychologist and lead for the gameChange VR study at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, Dr Rob Dudley, said: “Many people with psychosis find it hard to cope with busy social situations and may avoid places that they need or want to go to.
“By using virtual reality technology treatment people can experience feared places like a local shop, cafe or GP surgery in a virtual environment which feels real enough to allow people learn how to manage, and that they are safer than they feel,” he said.
Dr Dudley said he and his team hoped that people would be able to take this learning into the “real world” and let them do more whilst feeling “less anxious or distressed” around other people.
In the North East, NHS staff have worked closely with a local group of mental health service users to trial the VR equipment and act as a steering group providing oversight for the study.
Dr Dudley said: “Our trust is proud to be a partner on this project, and we are especially pleased to have involved a group of local service users from an early stage in the process.”
“The service users have acted as a steering group helping oversee the delivery of this study, and we would like to thank them for their amazing support,” he added.