Virtual handholding for the socially withdrawn

Going to parties, giving a presentation at work, or even just going into a store may be something most of us do without giving it much thought.

Ivy Ong-Wood

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Going to parties, giving a presentation at work, or even just going into a store may be something most of us do without giving it much thought.

But for some, what appears simple may seem like an insurmountable task. Social withdrawal, a common symptom of anxiety and depression, can significantly affect functioning at home and at work.

A survey by YouGov this month showed that 71 percent of respondents have experienced at least one symptom of social avoidance – such as saying no to social gatherings as well as finding it difficult to give a work presentation work or interact with unfamiliar people due to anxiety or stress.

In particular, 64 percent of youngsters aged 18 to 24 say they cannot interact with strangers.

One in eight felt unable to discuss their mental wellbeing with anyone. Of that, 36 percent thought that discussing mental wellbeing could change how others perceive them, while 27 percent said they didn’t have the time nor money to seek professional mental health services.

To help these people practice in a safe, non-threatening environments, Axa Hong Kong, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Oxford VR have developed a first-of-its-kind advanced psychological therapy using virtual reality.

The “Yes I Can” program provides participants with six to eight 30-minute virtual-reality sessions over a period of three to six weeks.

It is intended for use by adults aged 18 or above, and is offered in both English and Cantonese.

During the treatment, a virtual coach guides users through a series of tasks in environments that reflect everyday scenarios such as a cafe, bus, street, doctor’s waiting room and convenience store.

The scenarios enable users to experience the same emotional and physical responses that triggers their anxiety and their desire to avoid situations, as they would in real life. As a result of being exposed over time in virtual reality, users learn that they can confront and engage in these feared situations safely and overcome their social withdrawal.

“Based on its proven success in the UK, VR therapy can be used to treat most common psychological conditions – including common phobias, anxiety and depression and even more difficult conditions such as psychosis and schizophrenia,” said Barnaby Perks, Oxford VR chief executive officer. “Technology holds the key to making high-quality mental health care more patient-centred and accessible.“

Axa chief executive officer Gordon Watson noted that nearly two-third of respondents admitted that there is still a stigma associated with having a mental health condition preventing people talking about it and getting professional help.

“ ‘Yes I Can’ is about changing the status quo by offering high-quality, innovative and clinically-validated mental health treatment to members of the public in need, and to our corporate customers as part of their employee benefits services,” he said.

“Through this initiative, we aim to make quality mental health care more accessible in Asia, with Hong Kong as a pioneer in breaking new ground.”

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