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Virtual Reality: A Game-Changer for Mental Health Treatment?

March 11, 2020

VR Veteran to Share Insights at Elevate Conference

When working in brain injury rehabilitation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Albert “Skip” Rizzo, PhD, was frustrated. The pencil-and-paper workbook exercises he used during sessions to help patients regain cognitive function were hardly engaging, but he was at a loss for what other tools to try. Then one day, a 22-year-old patient brought a Game Boy into his office.

Dr. Rizzo watched as the young man with a frontal lobe injury played Tetris intently for 15 minutes. And as he watched, he noticed the patient’s performance improve. Technology, he realized, could be a clinical game-changer. For Dr. Rizzo, the revelation was a career game-changer.

Dr. Rizzo went on to help establish a clinical virtual reality lab at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and, for the last 25 years or so, has designed, developed, and studied simulation technology for use in patient care. In a 2017 article, Forbes magazine deemed him the father of the clinical virtual reality industry.

At Elevate by Psych Congress, Dr. Rizzo will discuss the current state of simulation technology and address whether he believes clinical virtual reality is truly ready for the practice setting. (Spoiler alert: He does.)

“Just as an aircraft simulator serves to test and train piloting ability across a range of systematic and controllable conditions, virtual reality can be similarly used to test, train, teach, and treat human functioning, all within the context of a clinical office,” said Dr. Rizzo, author of Virtual Reality for Psychological and Neurocognitive Interventions.

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At Dr. Rizzo’s session, attendees will learn about present-day virtual reality applications that address a slate of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dr. Rizzo helped develop a virtual reality tool called Bravemind, which has aided in providing exposure therapy to military veterans with PTSD since 2003.

As technology advances, costs decrease, and the popularity of virtual reality for entertainment grows, widespread use of clinical virtual reality is practically inevitable, according to Dr. Rizzo. If that prediction gives you pause, take heart: the technology has more than 2 decades worth of research backing it.

“Virtual reality has been documented to be a safe and efficacious tool for delivering evidence-based treatment across a range of clinical health conditions,” Dr. Rizzo said.

With its power to evoke strong emotions in patients, clinical virtual reality is not without ethical issues. Dr. Rizzo will cover those, too, during his session.

All in all, he considers clinical virtual reality a big gain for mental health care.

“While technology is not a magic bullet, if used in a thoughtful, ethical, and scientifically informed manner, it can really help clinicians do their jobs better, amplify positive clinical outcomes, make clinical training more effective, promote wellness, and fill in gaps for where a clinician is not readily available.”

—Jolynn Tumolo

The 2020 Elevate by Psych Congress conference is being held virtually July 25-27, 2020.
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