A cutting-edge mental therapy that uses virtual reality to help patients overcome their social fears is being researched in Hong Kong – and 250 residents are being recruited to help.
In a press conference on Monday, organisers of the project – called Yes I Can – said test subjects would go traverse virtual reality (VR) environments that reflect everyday scenarios, like going to a cafe, convenience store or a doctor’s waiting room.
By doing so, the researchers said patients would learn to confront and safely engage in situations without fear and social withdrawal.
The research is said to be the first to use VR technology in mental therapy. The project was launched by AXA Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Oxford VR.
The treatment, which is free for those who take part in the research, aims to make it easier for Hongkongers to seek help for a range of mental health issues – including anxiety, depression or social avoidance.
A survey commissioned by the researchers found that 1-in-8 Hongkongers polled said they felt unable to discuss their mental well-being with anyone because of the social stigma that comes from seeking professional help.
The survey of 1,015 Hongkongers also found that 71 per cent of the participants had experienced at least one symptom of social avoidance because of anxiety and depression.
“This research clearly tells us that we should do a lot more to create a solution to improve the mental well-being of the residents of Hong Kong,” said Gordon Watson, the chief executive officer of AXA Asia, AXA Asia, the multinational insurance firm.
Studies by the Hospital Authority’s psychiatry department showed that 1-in-6 Hongkongers suffered from a diagnosable mental health illness – with a worrying trend affecting the city’s younger residents.
Between 2010 and 2015, the authority found the number of young people seeking treatment for mental health problems at public facilities increased from 12,500 to 22,300. The biggest jump, 75 per cent, was in those under 15 years of age.
Designed as a treatment for social avoidance, the VR programme provides each participant with six to eight 30-minute sessions over a period of three to six weeks. The project hopes to help subjects feel safe and confident in social situations.
Barnaby Perks, the chief executive officer of Oxford VR, said the new therapy would provide another option for mental health treatment outside the traditional therapy sessions.
“The challenge when people break their silence, is they are immediately sent to see a psychiatrist. That whole one-to-one interaction is very challenging because it means talking about [your] mental health to a stranger,” Perks said.
He continued: “Whereas going to a clinic and putting a headset on, people find it engaging and the stigma is reduced significantly.”
Those interested in taking part in the ‘Yes I Can’ research must complete an complete an online questionnaire.
The English version of the programme will be held in July and Cantonese in August. Participants must be above the age of 18.
This article Virtual reality mental health project to offer new option for Hongkongers seeking help first appeared on South China Morning Post