Vicky Spratt | Deputy Editor | Monday, 15 February 2016

Could Avatars Be Used To Treat Depression?

Could Avatars Be Used To Treat Depression?

The Debrief: A new study from University College London has found that ‘virtual therapy’ could help people with depression

It’s safe to say that most people are affects by mental health problems at some point in their lives, whether that’s personally or because a loved one is affected.
Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental health disorder in the UK, and, according to statistics from Mind, almost a quarter of the population experiences some kind of mental health problem during the course of a year. Depression affects 2.6 for every 100 people and anxiety affects 4.6 for every 100 people, while mixed anxiety and depression affects 9.7 in every 100 people.

Women are more likely to be treated for mental health problems, while men are three times more likely to commit suicide.

New research from University College London has found that an immersive ‘virtual therapy’ could help people with depression. This involves the patient wearing a headset which projects a life-sized image, firstly of an adult and then of a crying child. The results of their study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open, could pave the way for a large-scale clinical trial in the future.

The projection that the patients saw through their headset mirrored their own movements; the idea is that the patients effectively embody themselves in a virtual reality avatar. They were told to say compassionate phrases to the child, in order to comfort and console it.

The doctors running the experiment told patients to ask the child to think of a time when it was happy, and to think of someone who loved them.  They then reversed the roles, altering the patient’s headsets so that they were actually embodied in the figure of the child. They then heard the very same comforting and kind things they had said to the child played back to them, spoken from the adult avatar in their own voice. In effect, the patients were then saying kind and comforting things to themselves.

‘People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives’, Professor Chris Brewing, the lead author of the report, said.

‘In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion. The aim was to teach patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical’, he added.

Professor Brewin, called the results of this study, which involved 15 people who were all currently being treated by the NHS for depression, were very ‘promising’.  He added that patients had described their experiences as ‘very powerful’.

Out of the 15 people involved in the trial, nine said they experienced reduced levels of depression one month afterwards.

Four out of that nine also reported a ‘clinically significant drop in depression severity.’

Professor Brewin says he believes that the effects of the avatar treatment could last as long as a month. One the same day that a report has been released saying that the majority of people are not receiving the trestment they need for mental health problems on the NHS and that the system is 'failing most people', the authors of this study say they are hoping to run a larger scale trial in the near future to find out what benefits this kind of treatment could have for people suffering from depression in the future.

You might also be interested in:

How To Cope When You're Dealing With Depression At Work

I Quit My Dream Job For My Mental Health

Why Is Noone Talking About Depression Amongst Graduates?

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Tags: Mental health