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05-12 New study uses virtual reality to relieve depression

New study uses virtual reality to relieve depression

America is experiencing a mental health crisis in which depression and anxiety have become commonplace and suicide is a leading cause of death. The addiction epidemic is getting worse and socioeconomic distress is adding additional stress to families. Families suffering under such enormous pressure are fracturing, and now more than half of American children are suffering as a result.

The harsh reality is that teenagers feel the effects of these conditions and are also becoming depressed. Teens may not always understand what is happening to them and may not reach out to others for help. The good news is that new treatments are being developed, but first it is important to understand how depression looks and feels.

Signs and symptoms of depression include:

  • Less energy
  • Less enjoyment
  • Change in appetite or weight
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Poor grades
  • Irritability or anger outbursts
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Depressed mood
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Dependency
  • Self-criticism

While self-criticism is a normal part of self-regulation, too much can be a form of self-harm. For example, practicing a skill to improve performance and confidence is positive self-regulation. But sulking alone because of feeling that one’s skills are inadequate is unhealthy. Pathological self-criticism perpetuates depression symptoms and predicts suicidal behavior. But now a fascinating new study not only treated depressed patients by trying to reduce their self-criticism, but used virtual reality technology to do so.

Virtual reality for depression

The goal of the study was to teach patients to be more compassionate and less self-critical toward themselves through three weekly virtual reality sessions. During the sessions, patients were given the opportunity to soothe a crying child, then to experience receiving their own words and compassion through the virtual body of the child.

The 15 patients who participated all had statistically significant reductions in depression severity and self-criticism, and more self-compassion. Four participants had clinically significant reductions in their depression symptoms.

Senior author Chris R. Brewin, Ph.D., commented: “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, and we saw promising results.”

Virtual reality (VR) lends itself to customized treatment by recreating stimuli in a manner that is safe, realistic and controllable. VR mental health applications have already been applied to assessment and treatment research, and some pros and cons are already emerging. For example, initial studies show that VR holds great promise for the understanding and treatment of schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. Yet whether VR is cost-effective or improves treatment compliance remains to be seen.

A new era for depression treatment

Although depression symptoms haven’t changed significantly through the ages, diagnosis and treatment have. Depression is now viewed as separate disorders that can take many forms, rather than merely a mood disorder. Diagnosis is still made according to symptoms, but can now be aided by blood tests and brain imaging. Treatment for depression still includes psychotherapy and medication for some, whereas others benefit from newer therapies. Specialized centers offering the latest effective treatments for adolescents may soon include virtual reality therapy.

About us

The Sovereign Health Group is a leader in the treatment of adolescents with mental health problems including depression, as well as substance use and dual diagnosis. Our programs integrate state-of-the-art neurocognitive treatments with alternative approaches like experiential therapies, while fostering healthy lifestyle habits and coping mechanisms. To learn more about our specialized programs at Sovereign Health, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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