Virtual Reality Making Progress as Depression Treatment

Laird Harrison

January 13, 2022

Virtual reality has been taking positive steps in a variety of treatment areas for some time. Now a Japanese company is asking the question: Can people with depression benefit from watching virtual reality scenarios in which actors portray characters coping with the condition?

That's the assertion of the Tokyo-based company Jolly Good, a virtual reality start-up that introduced the US version of its VRDTx program at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2022 Annual Meeting.

"Using this as an adjunct for psychotherapy to help someone see an example of someone who's struggling with depression can be a helpful tool," said Katharine Larsson, PhD, RN, clinical director of Boston Behavioral Medicine (BBM) in Brookline, Massachusetts. Larsson and her BBM colleague, Amaro J. Laria, PhD, are helping Jolly Good to adapt the program for use in the United States.

VRDTx uses techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Donning goggles, viewers watch people acting out situations common to depression.

One technique frequently used in CBT is to make a detailed plan, Laria says. For example, VRDTx users might watch a character with depression struggling to get out of bed but resolving to get up for at least 10 minutes one day, to go for a walk the next day, etc. "The virtual reality allows you to watch a person actually going through the process of applying the intervention," he says.

In this way, the program could work like hypnotherapy or imaginal therapy where patients picture themselves in a situation that might trigger their depression and then picture themselves coping with that situation.

Larsson advises using the program primarily as a sort of homework. "Using this to enhance a therapeutic relationship is a very appropriate use," she says. "Using it to substitute or replace the time with a therapist, I don't think it could begin to have any kind of real efficacy."

Deploying virtual reality to treat mood disorders is not new, said Preethi Premkumar, PhD, a senior lecturer in psychology at London South Bank University, in London, United Kingdom, who has no relationship to Jolly Good.

Premkumar is first author of a study of a virtual reality program used to treat people who have anxiety about speaking in public. The program depicts the user speaking before an audience and allows the user to vary the number of people in the audience and the audience's reactions. The users gave it high marks, Premkumar says. "They felt that it encouraged them to take on public speaking more in reality."

Virtual reality could work in a similar way for depressed people because they tend to catastrophize about specific situations. "Virtual reality can recreate those scenes and then make people confront it without overexposing them," Premkumar says.

One recent review article found several studies on virtual reality as a treatment for anxiety. While only a handful focused on depression, they had mostly favorable results.

Jolly Good sponsored one such study, presented September 17, 2021, at the European Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (EABCT). "Results indicate improvement in the scores of the targeted patients with depression," according to an abstract the company published online. "Use of VR caused no adverse events, demonstrating that VR can be used safely in the CBT for of depression." The company did not respond to a request for more details.

After viewing scenarios created for Japanese patients, Larsson and Laria offered Jolly Good several tips about making the transition to the United States. The actors should be more emotionally expressive, they said. They should portray a more diverse cast of characters, including some female bosses. And not all scenes should be set in the workplace.

"In the US, at least in our experience, a lot of what depressed patients talk about is just their personal lives, their intimate relationship with a significant other, family relations, friends," Laria says. "We gave them a whole list of topics that we felt would be more relevant for a US audience."

Larsson and Laria are consultants to Jolly Good. Premkumar reported no relevant financial interests.

Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2022 Annual Meeting.

Laird Harrison writes about science, health, and culture. His work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, on public radio, and on websites. He is at work on a novel about alternate realities in physics. Harrison teaches writing at the Writers Grotto. Visit him at or follow him on Twitter: @LairdH.

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