10 Jan 2018

Virtual reality brings mental illness into focus

9:37 pm on 10 January 2018

A mental health organisation is turning to technology to help people understand the reality of living with mental illness.


The initiative uses VR headsets to help tell the stories of people who have recovered from specific mental health problems. Photo: (Samuel Zeller via unsplash.com)

Changing Minds uses virtual reality to tell a dozen people's stories of their recovery from particular symptoms of mental health illnesses.

Chief executive Taimi Allan said the stories were edited down to five-minute scripts and actors telling the stories gave an added level of anonymity.

The prototype, created in August, featured a Māori man who had experienced psychosis.

"He talks about his whole life and you put on the headsets and you're totally immersed in his world.

"It's just like sitting down with him at a cafe, you can reach out and you can almost touch him and you can converse with him and talk to him and find out more about his entire life than just the experiences of mental distress," she said.

She said people were less likely to discriminate if they got to know someone as a whole person, not just by their diagnosis.

Taimi Allan, chief executive of Auckland Mental Health advocacy organisation Changing Minds.

Changing Minds chief executive Taimi Allan Photo: Supplied

"The idea is that you get to know this guy - as a family man, as an artist, as everything - but he's also able to explain what it's like to experience psychosis and get over it.

"So that you get over those myths that they're dangerous people or that there's violence associated or any of those sorts of things, and you get to understand more of the experience."

She said the beauty of virtual reality was the environment can change, so as he talked about nature being healing, the environment around the viewer changed from a rainforest to a beach.

Another aspect was the inclusion of virtual objects, like a koro stone, that the viewer can pick up in virtual reality. It can then be kept on a smartphone or printed out as a reminder.

Ms Allan said by talking to real people who had recovered from mental illness, others could get an idea of the enormous jigsaw-puzzle of things that they've put in place to help them get well and then stay well.

"Most people, when they become unwell, we have a very dominating medical model of practice."

She said family members often thought there was only one pathway to recovery.

"And that is hospitalisation, talking therapy if you're lucky, and medication."

However, that was often not a good way of approaching treatment.

"It's about arming the person themselves with the tools that they think will help them recover, not what we place on them as mental health services.

"So, some of those pieces that people might find really useful might be more spiritually based or might be more physically based or might be more health- or nutrition-based.

"But they also might be based in the medical model that we already use, so they might use talking therapy as one of the things that helps them, or medication.

"It's not about us telling people what they need, it's about people being able to explore all the options that are out there and choose what's right for them."

Ms Allan said they were in the process of seeking funding.

She said the level of funding depended on whether they were able to run the project as an installation which would sit in the foyers of workplaces, conferences, festivals, symposiums and education days.

The alternative was to put it on an app known as Google Cardboard, which can be downloaded for a small fee.

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