Virtual reality won’t fix the mental health crisis, but a disruptive innovation might

By Emmanuelle Verdieu, Reprinted from the Christensen Institute

Each year, 1 in 5 adults in the US experience mental illness, and 1 in 6 youth experience a mental health disorder. The US is in a mental health crisis. In October 2021, health professionals from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health. They cited rising rates of mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality among children and their families, exacerbated by the pandemic and the struggle for racial justice. They called upon the government and advocates to help address this crisis.

With the increase of virtual tech platforms that offer cognitive and behavioral support, some are asking whether virtual reality could “cure” the mental health crisis. Probably not, though it can help. Instead, a better solution to the crisis would be to address provider shortages and make mental health services affordable…or introduce a disruptive innovation.

Virtual reality and the metaverse

Virtual reality (“VR”), or the metaverse, has been a hot topic for a while. It’s a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment where people can immerse themselves in a virtual world where they or their avatar can play games, host events, and socialize, but also de-stress, obtain peer support, and participate in therapy.

For example, Grammy-winning artist Jewel is a cofounder of Innerworld: “a virtual world where people teach each other the tools of Cognitive Behavioral Immersion™. It’s a place where the struggles of life can be left behind. Where a welcoming community will help you get where you want to go, and where you’ll learn tools to help you take charge of your life’s story.” Innerworld offers a host of events like support groups, discussions about coping with social anxiety or body dysmorphia, story sharing, guided meditation, and Cognitive Behavioral Immersion courses.

Another example is AnomieXR, “A client-led VR software solution for therapists and ​coaches, allowing clients to create their own virtual ​worlds to tackle their problems.” Cofounder Nina Salomons created AnomieXR during the pandemic. Nina brought VR into prisons in 2018 and realized that VR helped the people imprisoned have fewer thoughts about self-harm and suicide. She and cofounder Liam McKill then realized that VR could help young people and others who struggle to communicate.

Currently, and in the past, VR has been used to help patients with trauma, anxiety, and chronic pain, but it looks like companies and mental health providers are trying to move it into the spectrum of mental health services. Dr. Lauren Hoffman, Senior Clinical Psychologist at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders and an Assistant Professor of Medical Psychology in the Columbia University Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, expressed in an article by Columbia Psychiatry that she believes VR is a promising option for adolescents and youth as it “can bring anxiety-provoking situations into treatment without leaving the office. VR allows for the use of realistic exposure stimuli—introducing yourself in a classroom, meeting peers at a party—enhancing the likelihood that anxiety will be activated, and that treatment will ultimately be successful.” Also, it is appealing to youth interested in technology and gaming.

A sustaining innovation is not going to solve the mental health crisis

Using VR to address mental health is interesting and exciting, but it appears to be a sustaining innovation. Sustaining innovations are improvements on previously available products or services, such as incremental, year-to-year improvements or breakthrough products. These products or services target high-end customers. VR or metaverse mental health services are the next step in teletherapy or mental health services. However, they don’t address current issues around accessing therapy, such as provider shortages and the inability to afford therapy. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association, in 2020, “46 percent [of adults with serious mental health issues] reported that they could not afford the cost of treatment, and 19 percent reported that their health insurance did not pay enough for mental health services.”

If there aren’t enough providers and people can’t afford mental health services, VR won’t help. That’s because the issue of access isn’t solved for: some people may not have access to a WiFi connection or a computer, and even those that do now have to consider the added cost of purchasing an expensive VR headset. Innerworld does allow users to access the world from PCs, macs, iPhones, and iOs devices, but this removes VR as a critical component to care.

Potential alternative solutions to the mental health crisis

VR definitely has a place in the mental health spectrum of services, but it’s not a solution to the mental health crisis. The solution to the mental health crisis is likely addressing the provider shortage by gaining more mental health providers and making mental health services affordable, or a disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovations make products or services more accessible and affordable, thereby making them available to a larger population. There are three components that make up a disruptive innovation:

  1. An enabling technology that allows a product or service to be delivered at a more affordable price to a broader market;
  2. An innovative business model targeting either nonconsumers (those who previously did not or could not buy products or services in a given market) or low-end consumers (the least profitable customers), and;
  3. A value network where suppliers, partners, distributors, and customers (in this case patients or clients) are each better off when the disruptive technology prospers.

Policies and regulations also play a critical role, either enabling innovations to flourish, or prohibiting their ability to do so.

For example, Wysa or Woebot may be disruptive innovations that could address the mental health crisis. Both are artificial intelligence services that use evidence-based approaches to help people. Although you need the internet to use them, both are free, emphasize their ability to provide convenient support when it’s needed, and state they have proven success.

Although VR and the metaverse may be the future, we need solutions that address the present issues. Hopefully, a disruptive innovation is just around the corner to do just that.

To access the post about this discussion, please click here.