UAE: Mental health patients can soon get counselling through virtual reality

The idea is for a patient to enter simulations and be coached with responses

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Nandini Sircar

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KT Photos: Rahul Gajjar
KT Photos: Rahul Gajjar

Published: Mon 29 Jan 2024, 6:37 PM

Last updated: Mon 29 Jan 2024, 9:45 PM

In a unique endeavour known as the Mental Health Immersive Lab, psychological therapy will now be offered through virtual reality technology to provide counselling for patients in the UAE.

The inaugural day of Arab Health 2024 saw the unveiling of the Immersive Reality Laboratory, a cutting-edge smart technological tool adopted by the Emirates Health Services (EHS).

This marks the Middle East's pioneering introduction of the distinctive therapeutic approach.

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How does it work?

As part of enhanced patient care, in this immersive lab, a therapist has the opportunity to create a situation, making it more disturbing each time for a patient undergoing treatment.

A therapist may simulate the original traumatic incident responsible for the issue, such as a battlefield, a frequent trigger for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This approach uses immersive reality technology to enhance therapeutic results, utilizing artificial environments to create simulated scenarios for addressing psychological challenges and assisting patients in confronting their fears.

The idea is for a patient to enter simulations and be coached with responses.

Therapy to be implemented in second half of 2024

Speaking to Khaleej Times on Monday, Dr Ammar Humaid Albanna, Director of Al Amal Psychiatric Hospital, said, “We are in the early phases of piloting it in our hospital which is the main psychiatric hospital in the UAE under the EHS. This therapy will be implemented in the second half of 2024."

According to Albanna, 5-10 per cent of the population exhibits symptoms of anxiety. "Five per cent have severe anxiety requiring interventions. Anxiety and mood disorders are the most prevalent conditions internationally. Many adults and children have anxieties related to heights and separation as well.”

No VR glasses required

Explaining the experience that is completely immersive using hi-tech screens, AlBanna emphasizes it is ‘like reality’.

The technology works towards creating an innovative and interactive therapeutic environment that contributes to the development of advanced and personalized treatment plans for a larger segment of society compared to traditional methods.

He adds, “This is in addition to senses like tactile and others which will also be used to create experiences. Therapists or doctors will utilize this technology when working with patients who require it. The medic will first create a relaxing environment for the patient, once the patient feels relaxed, they can then start exposing them to the anxiety situation without him/her having to leave the room. It’s also worth noting that the patient doesn’t even have to wear any glasses.”

He highlights that a considerable number of individuals are averse to using VR glasses, which can sometimes be heavy and uncomfortable for the user.

This technology can develop treatments for seniors, children, and individuals with sensory and cognitive difficulties such as anxiety, internet addiction, and some behavioural challenges associated with autism.

Albanna added, “There are people who can’t tolerate glasses like younger kids, elderly people, and people with autism among others. So, this kind of experience opens up intervention for a larger population. You gradually expose the person until the anxiety goes down and they are ready to face this fear in real life.”

He stressed that the therapist will always be present with the patient in the room during the treatment.

“This way, patients feel more secure and anchored.” The technology also aims to train and educate individuals with autism spectrum disorders in social skills through interactive environments. “It might open new horizons for interventions. Additionally, cognitive-behavioural therapy using augmented reality is employed to correct thoughts and behaviours,” he added.

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