Virtual reality – great for gaming, right? But it’s not just the thought of Sony’s upcoming Playstation VR which should fill you with anticipation for an exciting, simulated future. Less well-know is this technology’s much more practical application: diagnosing and treating mental health issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Schizophrenia. Known as avatar therapy, researchers around the globe have been exploring how the virtual world can be used to help those with very real problems…

By Lily Clarke

Every year, a quarter of the UK’s population will experience a mental health problem. It’s a problem that is right in the public eye as of late, with Jeremy Corbyn appointing a Minister for Mental Health in his shadow cabinet and Kate Middleton visiting children’s mental health charity Anna Freud, just this week. However, there is a strong media focus on mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, and less attention given to rarer conditions such as Schizophrenia. There are a multitude of symptom-monitoring and self-help apps available, such as Pacifica for anxiety sufferers, and yet there is still very little for those with more uncommon problems.

At the University of Southern California, researchers are developing a virtual solution to this problem.

Her name is Ellie. She introduces herself in a calm voice. Ellie is an avatar, designed to interview mental health patients, gather information about their symptoms and help doctors to develop a diagnosis. Her specialities are PTSD and depression diagnoses.

Ellie mental health avatar
Ellie tracks your body language and tone of voice in incredible detail

Instead of understanding words, Ellie is analysing the patient’s tone of voice and facial expressions. Contrary to what you might think, those with depression smile just as often as those without depression. However, their smiles tend to be shorter in duration and more forced, something Ellie can pick up on that a human doctor may not. Ellie can also compare the facial expressions of patients to hundreds of photos of soldiers who have returned from combat, searching for signs of PTSD. The technology used by Ellie is called Multisense, combining facial and dialogue recognition sensors.

Additionally, many patients have reported a preference towards speaking to a virtual therapist. It can remove some of the stigma around “seeing a shrink”, as well as eliminating human reactions such as sympathy which may make the patient uncomfortable.

Ellie is not designed to replace human therapists. But for many patients, Ellie can speed up their diagnosis, avoid multiple misdiagnoses and make the experience of receiving help for their problems far less traumatic. Ellie isn’t the only example of avatar therapy being used to help those with mental health issues. Scientists at UCL have been developing an avatar therapy for Schizophrenia patients.

Schizophrenia affects 1 in 100 people, causing symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations and changes in behaviour.

In this case, the avatar is used during treatment to help patients stand up to their auditory hallucinations. The patient designs their own avatar, choosing its face and voice to match their hallucinations as closely as possible. The therapist can then speak through the avatar, challenging the patient to take control of their hallucinations.

Schizophrenic patients are encouraged to bring their voices to life and engage them
Schizophrenic patients are encouraged to bring their voices to life and engage them

“Opening up a dialogue between a patient and the voice they’ve been hearing is powerful”, Dr Julian Leff, creator of the therapy program, explained. In a study of 16 schizophrenia patients he conducted in 2013, the majority of subjects reported a significant improvement in how often they experienced hallucinations, with three reporting that hallucinations had stopped completely. Although this was a small study, the results were promising and a much larger study of 142 patients is due to be completed later this year.

Research is still in its early stages, but it is clear there is potential for avatar therapy to have a significant effect on many people’s lives. Organisations such as Mindtech support ongoing research into projects similar to these, stretching from games to help diagnose ADHD in children, to ambient monitoring devices to track behaviour patterns of those with dementia. Technology will certainly play a key role in improving the lives of the quarter of us who suffer from mental health issues in the not-so-distant future, helping us to beat down the mental health stigma one small step at a time.

Written by Malek Murison

Malek Murison is a freelance tech journalist working closely with clients in the drone industry.

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