The pandemic saw surges of PTSD in healthcare workers — can virtual reality therapy help?

Most people are counting down the days until the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Yet, a virtual reality therapy technique would immerse front-line workers back into the pandemic's darkest days to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a June 3 article by The New York Times.

Virtual reality therapy has shown success in treating PTSD and anxiety, the same mental health disorders on the rise. Healthcare workers have the highest rates of PTSD amid the pandemic, with 22.8 percent of workers showing signs of the disorder, according to a February study of 1,092 healthcare workers. For comparison, just 6.8 percent of the general population experiences PTSD in their lifetime.

Some hospitals are already using virtual reality to treat PTSD. The Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Long Beach, Calif., uses virtual reality to immerse veterans into 3D environments that replicate a traumatic experience.

The use of VR in veterans' PTSD treatment has helped to uncover memories that have been blacked out. It has also helped veterans become less fearful of their memories.

Virtual reality was used to treat PTSD in 9/11 survivors, according to JoAnn Difede, PhD, a psychology professor and expert in VR treatment for PTSD at New York City-based Weill Cornell Medicine.

However, in the early 2000s, virtual reality equipment cost $25,000 and weighed 10 pounds. Now, Americans can get their hand on a VR headset for under $300, the Times reported.

Some people may be concerned that virtual reality therapy is overwhelming for patients and may re-traumatize patients. However, experts said patients become desensitized to their memories and it proves that their thoughts can be safe.

"If you overcome something in VR, you overcome it in real life," said Daniel Freeman, PhD, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Oxford (U.K.) University who runs virtual reality therapies at clinics across the United Kingdom.

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