The VR Couch: Virtual Reality Takes On Mental Illness

How VR can help patients suffering from eating disorders, phobias and schizophrenia.

VR could change mental illness treatment
VR could change mental illness treatment
Laure Coromines

PARIS — The World Health Organization has said that one in four people will be affected by mental disorders at some point in their lives. In France, one in five people suffer from mental illnesses that, in the most extreme cases, can lead to suicide. An alternative to traditional treatments has emerged in clinical and academic circles: the use of immersive virtual reality.

Acclaimed by researchers, psychologists and psychiatrists alike, immersive virtual reality makes for a very effective self-observation tool for treating various disorders, minor or major. By making the real and the virtual worlds overlap, this technology allows patients to navigate from one universe to another so as to better cope with traumatic or anxiety-provoking situations.

"This technology works very well in the context of exposure techniques, where patients are exposed to high-risk situations," says Lucia Valmaggia, Professor and Director of Research in Psychology and Digital Mental Health at King's College London. She has been studying the positive effects of virtual reality (VR) treatments on psychoses for 15 years.

Valmaggia explains that when repeated, the VR technique will allow the patient to develop resilience with regard to phobias, OCD, acute anxiety, addiction or eating disorders. In the case of a fear of flying, for example, the patient is immersed in an ultra-realistic situation that reproduces the experience of a traveler, from the arrival at the airport to the landing. The strategy is the same for eating disorders: patients with bulimia nervosa have to walk, virtually, between the shelves of a supermarket or open a refrigerator filled with products that could trigger binge eating.


VR can help patients develop resilience​ to triggers — Photo: Samuel Zeller

Virtual reality also makes it possible to address one of the symptoms that constitute this category of disease: dysmorphophobia, meaning the condition that leads a person not to perceive herself as she is. In a fitting room, the patient sees her silhouette superimposed on the one she thinks she has, in order to highlight her different perception. "For these diseases, virtual reality is more effective than conventional therapy, and less expensive because it can be delivered in fewer sessions," says Valmaggia.

Alexandre Dumais, a researcher and psychiatrist at the Philippe-Pine Institute in Montreal, has developed a pilot project to treat patients who suffer from schizophrenia and are reluctant to turn to hospitalization, drugs or electroconvulsive therapy. The goal is to teach these patients to respond to their hallucinations in order to push them back.

"For many people suffering from schizophrenia, hallucinations take the form of a humanoid demon that persecutes them," explains Dumais. Supported by a myriad of start-ups specializing in new technologies, the researcher reproduces his patients' demon as faithfully as possible, from skin color to the timbre of its voice, so as to allow patients to dialogue with the demon and to push it back.

It allows the patient to develop better coping strategies.

Since 2015, the avatar technique has been successfully tested on about 20 patients, including Richard Breton, 52, who, after only half-a-dozen sessions, observed an improvement in his condition. "I myself am still very surprised by the therapy's effectiveness, the results are extremely promising," says Dumais. "Coupled with cognitive and behavioral therapy, it allows the patient to develop better coping strategies."

The hardware necessary for many of these therapies remains very expensive and, although it's widely used in clinical research, its implementation has not yet become widespread. On the software side, improvements are still needed to make VR experiences more customizable. "The stronger the feeling of presence, that feeling of immersion, the more conclusive the treatment will be," Dumais explains.

It should be noted that very little research has been conducted on diseases such as depression or bipolar disorder, whose symptoms are harder to identify and reproduce.

But beyond clinical pathologies, VR is proving to be very effective in treating another one of the evils of our time: stress. By making the electrical activity of the body and mind visible, VR makes it possible to observe one's mental state in order to regulate it better in daily life.

"We will provoke in the patient different states in which cognitive functions will be put under strain. By repeating the sessions, we can better train a patient's responses," explains Guillaume Victor-Thomas, founder of Open Mind Innovation, a neuro-tech company. "In a gamified context carefully designed with neuroscientists and therapists, the patient will be subjected to planning and joint attention tasks, which are most likely to create stress, which can generate "fight or flight" reactions that deteriorate cognitive performance and are harmful to your health."

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New Delhi, India: Fumigation Against Dengue Fever In New Delhi

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 வணக்கம்*

Welcome to Thursday, where America's top general reacts to China's test of a hypersonic weapon system, Russia is forced to reimpose lockdown measures and Venice's historic gondola race is hit by a doping scandal. French daily Les Echos also offers a cautionary tale of fraud in the crypto economy.

[*Vaṇakkam, Tamil - India, Sri Lanka, Singapore]


Top U.S. general says Chinese weapon nearly a "Sputnik moment": China recently conducted a "very concerning" test of a hypersonic weapon system as part of its push to expand space and military technologies, Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg News. America's top military officer said that this was akin to the Soviet Union's stunning launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, 1957, which sparked the Cold War space race. Milley also called the test of the weapon "a very significant technological event" that is just one element of China's military capabilities.

Brexit: France seizes British trawler: A British trawler has been seized by France while fishing in French waters without a license, amid escalating conflict over post-Brexit fishing rights. France's Minister for Europe said it will adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards Britain and block access to virtually all of its boats until it awards licenses to French fishermen.

COVID update: Russia confirmed a new record of coronavirus deaths, forcing officials to reimpose some lockdown measures, including a nationwide workplace shutdown in the first week of November. Germany also saw its numbers spike, with more than 28,000 new infections yesterday, adding to worries about restrictions this winter there and elsewhere in Europe. Singapore, meanwhile, reported the biggest surge in the city-state since the coronavirus pandemic began. Positive news on the vaccine front, as U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck granted royalty-free license for a COVID-19 antiviral pill to help protect people in the developing world.

Iran nuclear talks to resume: Iran's top nuclear negotiator said multilateral talks in Vienna with world powers about its nuclear development program will resume before the end of November. The announcement comes after the U.S. warned efforts to revive the deal were in "critical phase."

First U.S. passport with "X" gender marker: The U.S. State Department has issued its first American passport with an "X" gender marker. It is designed to give nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming people a marker other than male or female on their travel document. Several other countries, including Canada, Argentina and Nepal, already offer the same option.

China limits construction of super skyscrapers: China has restricted smaller cities in the country from building extremely tall skyscrapers, as part of a larger bid to crack down on wasteful vanity projects by local governments. Earlier this year the country issued a ban on "ugly architecture."

Doping scandal hits Venice's gondola race: For the first time in the history of the Venice Historical Regatta, a participant has tested positive to marijuana in a doping test: Gondolier Renato Busetto, who finished the race in second place, will be suspended for 13 months.


"End of the ice age," titles German-language Luxembourgish daily Luxemburger Wort, writing about how the ice melting in the Arctic opens up new economic opportunities with a new passage for countries like Russia and China but with potentially devastating effects for the environment. The issue of the Arctic is one of the topics that will be discussed at the COP26 Climate Change Conference which kicks off in Glasgow on Sunday.


$87 billion

A new United Nations report found that extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones, floods and droughts have caused India an average annual loss of about $87 billion in 2020. India is among the countries which suffered the most from weather hazards this year along with China and Japan.


Air Next: How a crypto scam collapsed on a single spelling mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy from Laurence Boisseau in Paris-based daily Les Echos.

📲 The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system. Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation.

📝 On Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, the CEO admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

⚠️ What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond". Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


"A weapon was handed to Mr. Baldwin. The weapon is functional, and fired a live round."

— Following the Oct. 21 on-set shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, Sante Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza told a press conference that the "facts are clear" about the final moments before Hutchins was shot. The investigation continues to determine what led up to that moment, and any possible criminal responsibility related to how the "prop" gun that actor Alec Baldwin fired was loaded.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Share with us your favorite gondola memories or worst crypto scams — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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