The development comes months after the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR), UK announced an investment of £4 million in VR therapy for mental health problems - a project led by Freeman. The participants also referred themselves to take part in the study, so may not be representative of all people with fear of heights.
The research was undertaken using participants over 18 years old who had a self-reported fear of heights and responded to a recruitment advert.
The pre-recorded, 30-minute programme sessions ran automatically, with the virtual coach describing what participants needed to do.
Tasks included having to cross a rickety bridge, rescue a cat from a tree, perform tasks near the edge of a balcony - and ride a flying whale. They were constantly encouraged by the coach throughout the activity. The three people who did not complete the intervention either found the sessions too hard (two people) or were unable to attend further appointment sessions (one participant). Three fear-of-height assessments were conducted at baseline, end of treatment (two weeks), and follow-up (four weeks). No participant reported any adverse event.
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Fear of heights, the most common phobia, affects one in five people at some point in their lives, but most never receive treatment, researchers say.
VR therapy could well offer faster and more attractive treatment options, with equal effectiveness, compared to conventional personal therapy.
"With our unique automation of therapy using VR, there is the opportunity to provide really high quality treatment to many more people at an affordable cost", Freeman added. The scientists have that such treatment could be useful in treating a range of mental health conditions.
The positive findings of this study will pave the way for future research on therapy delivered using VR technology. This is, among other factors, because participants are randomly assigned to the group (treatment or control) they are in which, in turn, reduces bias in results. "This is often impractical in face-to-face therapy, but easily done in VR". The authors note that the treatment was brief, and further benefits could be possible with a longer treatment duration. However, more research is needed to understand how automated therapy would apply in other conditions, including more severe mental health disorders such as psychosis, where therapy is now delivered by experienced mental health professionals. It is already known that treatments focused on specific symptoms such as auditory hallucinations produce promising results with potentially greater effect sizes, but are presently available only in personal therapy by experts.