Reimagining mental health care through the neurological power of virtual reality
While the physical toll on COVID-19 dominates headlines, the impact of the pandemic on global mental health is a little-known time bomb that providers and insurers will deactivate over the next few years. Anxiety rates have tripled since 2019; they also have diagnoses of depression. Mental health professionals are thinner than emergency workers, but there is no vaccine they can inject into their arms to slow the spread of COVID-related mental illness. Something has to change. As the Delta variant exacerbates uncertainty about physical presence and employers struggle to welcome workers who have to transition their professional and personal lives to the latest version of “normal,” our healthcare system would act negligently believing that the status quo can withstand:
Where is the solution?
Crises give rise to innovation. They create moments when mindsets open up to new ways of solving critical problems. Unlikely teams are formed and new ideas are born. At BehaVR, we have created a way to use virtual reality, known to most as a transformative gaming technology, to transform the way mental health care is offered. By bringing together leading thinkers in digital health, neuroscience, biopharmaceuticals, health systems, public health, and academia, we are harnessing the unique neurological power of virtual reality to complement and scale mental health delivery. In June 2021, research published in Nature Neuroscience described how virtual reality can affect the brain on a deep level, affecting the theta rhythms responsible for memories and emotions, helping to sharpen cognition and learn faster. Scientific advances like this, integrated into a growing research group, will allow us to help millions build short-term coping skills and long-term resilience.
We can provide quality care to more people at a lower cost through virtual reality programs that work through neuroplasticity in the brain to establish new neural pathways that transform the way we respond to triggers, stressors, and trauma. In BehaVR programs, we are transported to an immersive environment where we are engaged in therapeutic and learning experiences that lead us out of the chronic activation of our response to stress and to finding new ways to control stress, l ‘anxiety and fear.
BehaVR is creating life-changing mindfulness experiences with the power to reach everyone
How is the treatment in this new therapeutic field? At the core of every BehaVR program is the SAFE protocol (stress, anxiety and fear extinction). Users enter a world where their attention is captured and the four brain learning centers are activated. Here they have the opportunity to participate, anywhere and anytime, in an evidence-based platform where they can learn to develop their lifelong adaptation skills.
Some examples of how we give life to this vision:
- Stress reduction for chronically burned populations: CenteredVR, developed in collaboration with Johns Hopkins HealthCare Solutions, focuses on stress and anxiety, teaching mindfulness practices and emotion regulation skills. A Mental Health America survey of front-line health workers found that 76% experience exhaustion and exhaustion and that less than half of nurses have sought support for this. Ongoing CenterRV trials report a 85% reduction in nursing stress in just four weeks and 66% say they feel revitalized to resume work after VR sessions. In addition, 89% of participants want CenteredVR to become a long-term employee benefit. All types of employers could offer this game-changing support when finding help is difficult and expensive.
- Education and empowerment for expectant mothers: NurtureVR, co-created with the Hoag Women’s Health Institute at the Hoag Presbyterian Memorial, takes mothers on a 22-week journey through the physical and emotional changes of pregnancy and postpartum transitions. Studies have long established a connection between the incidence of perinatal anxiety and mood disorders (PMAD) and chronic stress, as well as reduced gestational periods and premature birth. “SaveMoms,” Reach’s national maternal mortality and morbidity campaign, is helping us extend NurtureVR to mothers in underserved rural communities and regions that need it most. Our telelacting partner, Sonder Health, now offers NurtureVR within its suite of support services to provide a holistic experience that addresses the emotional and mental toll of pregnancy and nursing.
- Empower clinicians and patients with chronic pain to achieve better results, Together, faster: PNE + in VR, based on the proven and widely celebrated Why You Hurt: Pain Neuroscience Education System by Adriaan Louw, PT, PhD, CSMT’s, of Evidence in Motion, is a progressive, customized program designed to help physiotherapists reduce pain and develop pain control skills through education about the nature of pain and coping skills that are used in conjunction with physical therapies.
We simply scratch the surface of the possible applications of virtual reality giving millions of people the agency to improve their long-term mental health, economically and comfortably, while creating new ways to access and experience the care of mental health that empowers and educates people to a limited system of ability. We hope you come with us on this journey and that you do not accept the status quo. Now we can do better, together.
About the author
Aaron Gani is the founder and CEO of BehaVR, LLC, which creates digital therapies for behavioral health through the unmatched neurological power of virtual reality. Gani has been creating applications and experiences with technology throughout his career in health and financial services, including the position of technology director of Humana, a care organization managed by Fortune 50.