Study Shows Virtual Therapy Outperforms Real-World Shrinks

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Could virtual worlds be used to provide therapy to those who lack access to a real-world practitioner?

That's the premise of a recent article outlining the multiple ways virtual worlds could provide essential mental health services to more patients than ever before. But what about the possible caveats of virtual head-games?

Pixels and Policy takes a look at the compelling academic studies of just how effective virtual world psychotherapy really is. 

Reviewing the Literature

One of the most interesting studies mentioned in the article is a rewarding read with a wordy title: "A Second Life for eHealth: Prospects for the Use of 3-D Virtual Worlds." The paper brings up a persistent question of mine: How many times can "Second Life" be used as a play on words before it becomes passé?

From the study:

Real-time online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective in treating patients with depression. The study evaluated nearly 300 patients from 55 general practice clinics across the United Kingdom who had a diagnosis of depression.

The patients were randomly assigned to either receive online CBT in addition to their usual care from the general practitioner, or be placed on an 8-month waiting list for CBT while still receiving their usual care.

At the 4-month follow-up, 38% of the CBT group had recovered from their depression, compared to only 24% in the control group. After 8 months, 42% of the patients receiving CBT had recovered, compared to 26% in the control group.

The sample size is disconcerting, but as a pilot for further study, the results are invaluable. If the results mentioned abovecan be generalized to a larger population, the further research into digital therapy may draw the attention of some of the Virtual Age research universities we've mentioned in the past.

If accurate, this means the recovery rate of depressive patients using online therapy was a full 16 percent higher than a non-online group. Couple that with lower costs and the ease of participation that often dissuades some who may be helped by therapy, and you have the beginnings of a bold new front in mental health care.

Implementing Virtual CBT in the Metaverse

This is an inspiring study, but I do have doubts. As the article mentions, virtual therapy by way of Second Life is no substitute for face-to-face contact with a counselor, at least not yet.

Certain features present in real-world therapy are missing, such as the ability to detect substance use during a session, and the reliance on an avatar that may not express facial movements or physical motions.

Not to mention, the 24/7 access to counselors means a patient may have no relationship with a counselor he or she turns to in a moment of acute stress. This is because counselors work in rotation at virtual therapy clinics.

Nevertheless, progress is already underway on bringing therapy to the virtual world and developing professional standards to suit the Metaverse. Research into the psychology of virtual worlds is ongoing.

Still, this is absolutely something that must be analyzed further. The possibilities of increasing technology and interactivity in virtual worlds makes this a discipline which could be among the chief beneficiaries of the next wave in virtual world immersion technology.

4 thoughts on “Study Shows Virtual Therapy Outperforms Real-World Shrinks”

  1. As someone who has done inworld therapy for 3 years now, I follow the same rules and regs of my licensing boards. That includes HIPAA, not exceeding my scope of practice, and acting as a bridge to RL help whenever needed.

  2. How does Second Life comply with HIPAA if the therapist / psychiatrist doesn’t control the server, and can’t ensure patient data is only seen by him or her?

  3. There’s a mistake in your post — the original article says that the 300 patients were either assigned to virtual therapy or put on a waiting list for therapy. There was no group receiving face-to-face therapy.
    So virtual therapy is better than no therapy at all. That’s good.
    But you can’t use this study to compare it to the effects of face-to-face cognitive therapy. There, the results vary depending on what study you use — I’ve seen 43% after eight weeks (same as this online program) http://counsellingresource.com/features/2005/04/21/cognitive-therapy-effectiveness/
    But some studies report success rates for cognitive therapy as high as 60 percent.
    You also need to consider the placebo effect — some people will get better automatically when they do something about their depression — no matter what exactly it is that they do. This includes exercise, or reaching out and talking to friends — really, almost anything. (There’s even studies that reading a book and doing exercises in it will help depressed people improve.)
    – Maria

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