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‘You feel like it will be OK’: Using virtual reality to treat real depression

Professor Katherine Boydell from the Black Dog Institute said the idea was to create a sense of peace and mindfulness in people with clinical disorders to help them get out of what could be quite damaging depressive episodes.

“Individuals with history of suicidality tend to not be able to imagine a positive future, or even think beyond the next five minutes,” Professor Boydell said

“So we wanted to create an immersive experience to see if we could design something that could generate a positive mood.”

In a 10-minute virtual experience, the patient enters a white room and interacts with physical objects to eventually put themselves in a peaceful natural landscape.

The team trialled it for seven weeks at The Big Anxiety festival in Sydney last year, with good results.

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Many people reported good experiences with the simulation, including Ms Tym, lives with generalised anxiety disorder.

“I experience my anxiety really physically. I shake and tremor, sometimes I faint, that type of thing, so to be able to find that relief through [the VR experience] is really amazing,” she said.

“Ten minutes in that peaceful landscape and you feel like it will be OK.

“I actually had a moment during the exhibition when I felt an attack coming on, and I just went to the room and did the 10-minute program and felt amazing afterwards.”

The researchers are now partnering with Metro South Health in Brisbane to bring the simulator to Queensland to continue the study, thanks to a grant from Suicide Prevention Australia.

Professor Boydell said Metro South would be able to recruit people with appropriate mental disorders so the researchers could get solid data on exactly how effective the experience could be.

“We really want to recruit for this stage of the project individuals who have lived experience with suicidal thoughts or attempts,” she said.

“We want to focus on that population rather than the general population we did when we tested it at the festival last year.”

The installation will be put in the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane later this year when The Big Anxiety festival is due to be held.

Professor Boydell said the installation would still go ahead with clinically supplied patients even if the festival was affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact Lifeline on 131 114, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.

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