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Innovation & Job News

Virtual reality therapy: How one Grand Rapids center is changing the way we treat mental health



The canyon before me is expansive, with dramatic red and orange cliffs that continue for as far as the eye can see. Perched on a narrow strip of rock, I glance over the edge of the platform upon which I stand and immediately look back up. There’s no doubt about it: that’s a long, terrifying decline.

Before I get too queasy, I take off the large, black glasses strapped to my head and give a laugh of relief: I am in an office. And there are no cliffs.

The canyon I had seen is part of what’s known as a “virtual reality exposure system” at the VR Therapy and Counseling Center at 1618 Leonard St. NE in Grand Rapids, and that specific scene was used to help a client who had a fear of heights and was planning on going on a canyon hike with his wife. While being monitored by a therapist, the client immersed himself in a scene of which he was terrified, again and again traversing the narrow cliffs of the canyon until he eventually overcame his fear of heights.

“We use it with phobias a lot,” VR Therapy and Counseling Center owner and psychotherapist Thomas Overly says of the clinic’s virtual reality setup. “We worked with the guy who came in with the extreme fear of height; we’ve treated people for anxiety, PTSD. We have people come in, we interview them and we customize the [virtual reality] program to meet their needs.”

Since January 2015, when Overly launched the business that was first born as a research project for his graduate program at Grand Valley State University, he, another therapist and two computer programmers have worked to offer virtual reality therapy to everyone from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to businessmen and women with social anxiety, and individuals suffering from depression and eating disorders, among others.

For each client, Overly, who was a computer programmer before becoming a therapist, creates the virtual reality program they’ll use for their hour-long sessions, which, while they use a new technology, are typically covered by insurance because they use a well-known form of treatment known as exposure therapy. In other words: a client repeatedly faces their fear, in a safe environment, until it no longer plays a debilitating role in their life. Except here, instead of talking through their fear, as would happen in traditional exposure therapy, individuals are able to tackle their anxieties, phobias and more in a far more realistic environment, all while their heart rate is monitored by a therapist to ensure they don’t become dangerously anxious. Once they engage in the virtual reality program, they then will spend their remaining time talking about it with a therapist, after which the programmers can tweak the setup so it coincides with what the client needs as they progress and heal.

“A lot of studies were done with veterans and soldiers” that have shown the efficacy of virtual reality therapy, Overly says. “Guys don’t always like sitting down and talking about their feelings. This lets them work through it using a hands-on approach. They get to actually confront their fears.”

Now, in addition to the current system, the center is poised to launch another virtual reality program called a “behavioral rehearsal system,” which will use virtual reality and facial and full-body motion tracking to allow the therapists to interact with clients by controlling characters with the virtual environments the programmers create for them. Translation: the therapists can become any character necessary to help the client.

“I can play every role with them: I can be a little girl, an old man, any race,” Overly says.

The center extrapolates on this, writing that, for instance, “if a teen is having difficulty in school settings, we will be able to place him or her in a virtual school setting where he or she will be able to learn more effective interpersonal skills, with our therapists taking on the roles of other children, teachers, etc. The system will use voice modulation, along with motion tracking, in such a way that any therapist will be able to control any character within the simulation in real time, mapping all movement and communication in a way that matches the specific character being controlled.

“For instance, if a female teenager were having difficulties interacting with her peers, our therapists will be able to take on the role of any other teenagers in the simulation, regardless of age, sex and physical characteristics,” the center continues.

While all of this work being done by the center has not always been easy (the up-to-date technology isn’t cheap, and Overly has had to invest much of his own money into the business, for example), but it is beginning to pay off. The center’s available therapy sessions are routinely filled, with their days often including 12 hours of clients, and this kind of cutting edge treatment has caught the eye of business innovation experts. The center was recently named one of six grand prize winners in a national competition aimed at startups, the Comcast Business’ Innovations 4 Entrepreneurs contest. As a part of this contest, VR won $30,000 and a trip to the Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia in August, when Overly will meet with a series of experts on finance, business planning, operations and technology, growth strategy, and marketing.

“This is huge for us,” Overly says of the award. “We get to upgrade our technology, and we want to get this technology into other people’s hands. We want to train them and help them use this.”

For more information about VR Therapy and Counseling Center, you can visit its website here.

Photos courtesy of VR Therapy and Counseling Center
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