Virtual Reality: A Powerful New Tool for Addiction Treatment Centers
Virtual reality — like many new technologies — offers powerful opportunities to address existing problems in better ways. Among VR’s many applications, addiction treatment has emerged as one with great potential. With 72,000 deaths from drug overdose each year in the US alone, addiction is one of society’s greatest problems, and we are in great need of new and better solutions. In this article, we’ll outline how VR can help engage and retain patients during detoxification and outpatient care — two of the most challenging phases of addiction treatment.
During detoxification (detox), patients wean off addictive substances under the assistance of medication. While medication can minimize the worst withdrawal symptoms, patients may still experience substantial psychological and physical discomfort. In order to restrict access to drugs, patients are also often secluded with no access to the internet or personal phones, causing patients to feel trapped and restless. For these reasons, dropout is a major issue, with around 50% of patients leaving before completing the full course of treatment.
Virtual reality presents several opportunities to improve patient experience during detox, with the ultimate goal of reducing dropout:
Interactive mindfulness and guided imagery exercises teach patients to engage in healthy behaviors to minimize psychological and physical discomfort during the detox process.
Relaxation experiences enable patients to escape the confines of the facility and spend their time in natural environments around the world.
Therapeutic skills training, for depression, anxiety and trauma, empower patients to better cope during the detox period. Studies have shown that comorbid psychological diagnoses are common among addiction patients and that proactively addressing these behavioral health issues can significantly improve outcomes. Virtual-reality-based programs can educate patients about disorders and empower them with skills to stay the course during this challenging period.
Intensive Outpatient Programs
After detoxification, many patients move on to intensive outpatient programs (IOP). These programs typically last around three months, during which patients attend therapy for 12 hours each week. IOP is particularly challenging because patients reintegrate into daily life and face triggers and temptations, often after having spent substantial time in more controlled, residential programs. Retention is a major issue with around 50% of patients dropping out within their first month. For this reason, substance abuse professionals invest significant effort into finding ways to engage and motivate patients to complete these programs.
We know that keeping people in treatment leads to the best outcomes, and virtual reality provides several opportunities to do so:
Psychoeducation. During IOP, patients learn new behaviors and skills in order to successfully build a substance-free lifestyle. Patients are also educated about common comorbid mental health disorders, such as anxiety, PTSD, and depression, in order to help them identify and proactively address these conditions should they emerge. Rather than engaging in traditional lecture or book based approaches, virtual reality enables patients to learn experientially, and practice these new skills in a wide variety of realistic environments.
Cue Exposure Therapy. During addiction, patients acquire dysfunctional associations between everyday experience and substance use. After initial recovery, exposure to these cues can trigger cravings, which often lead to relapse. Virtual reality provides an opportunity to build and practice skills to deal with these triggers while still in the safety of the addiction treatment center. For example, a patient can practice refusal skills when asked by a waiter in a virtual restaurant if they would like a happy hour drink, or prepare for life after rehab by walking down a virtual street past needles and discarded pill bottles. Cues can be highly personalized, with a patient going to the virtual version of the specific bar, workplace or home that historically has triggered them. While some believe triggers should be avoided at all cost, these situations are likely to occur after a patient leaves the treatment center, and it is better that the patient practice and acquire effective skills to deal with these triggers while still in a supportive and controlled environment.
Personalized therapy programs. In recent years, there has been a large push to tailor substance abuse treatment programs to the individual patient. Substance abuse professionals now recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment, and that retention can be maximized by customizing treatment plans to the personality and interests of the patient. Particularly for younger populations, technologies such as virtual reality provide a highly attractive option to improve motivation and engagement. For example, while some patients engage well with lecture based learning, others respond much better to the experiential style of learning that virtual reality provides. Similarly, some patients respond well to traditional role playing for relapse prevention training, whereas others may benefit more from being able to practice refusal skills in an immersive virtual environment.
At Limbix, we’re grateful to have the opportunity to bring this new technology to addiction treatment. Our virtual reality experiences provide addiction treatment centers with powerful new options to add to their toolkits so that patients have the greatest opportunity for sustained recovery. You can learn more about our product at limbix.com, or reach out to us at email@example.com.
Virtual Reality: A Powerful New Tool for Addiction Treatment Centers was originally published in Limbix Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.