virtual reality mental health, vr mental health

Older Adults & Virtual Reality Mental Health


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Older adults are at greater risk of developing the mental health consequences associated with poor well-being, including depression, loneliness, mood disorders, physical health issues like heart disease, and more rapid physiological health declines (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2007). Research has found that regular contact with nature and the outdoors improves functioning in social, emotional, and physical well-being (OECD, 2013). Being in nature promotes happiness, positive affect, feeling connected with one’s surroundings, and feelings of greater meaning in life (Bratman et al., 2019; van Houwelingen-Snippe et al., 2020). VR mental health options are discussed in the article below.

Virtual Reality Mental Health

Virtual reality mental health technology can immerse patients in virtual environments that mimic outdoor environments to evoke positive mental health responses. Van-Houwelingen-Snippe and colleagues (2021) reported a “rapid review” of 25 virtual reality mental health studies designed to evaluate how seniors responded to nature simulations delivered via virtual reality. The researchers sought to deepen the understanding of how VR mental health interventions can help older adults unable to access the outdoors due to location (i.e., urban areas), limited mobility, or other issues (Battisto et al., 2018; Browning et al., 2020). The researchers sought to investigate how VR mental health tools can improve social well-being among these older adults.

A total of 25 articles were reviewed. Most of the articles focused on the effects of green space on mental health (i.e., stress reduction and improved quality of life). Three of the articles reviewed focused explicitly on examining how virtual reality mental health promotes general health (Battisto et al., 2018), recreation, rehabilitation (Bruun-Pedersen et al., 2015), and quality of life (White et al., 2018), among older adults by presenting nature virtually.

The researchers found that older adults must have access to nearby green spaces in urban areas to maintain mental health as this population ages. VR mental health can provide this vital exposure to nature for seniors with limited access to nearby green areas. They concluded that virtual reality mental health could provide older adults with exposure to nature using:

  • Augmented reality tools
  • Smart screens
  • Interactive walls
  • Smart Projections

Future Research with VR Mental Health Tools

The article suggested that future research focus on which VR mental health tool(s) would best improve well-being among older adults. They stated:

Although these studies provide useful starting points for the design and (technological) development of such environments, they do not generate understanding of how specific characteristics of virtual nature representations impact social well-being measures in particular, and of the underlying psychological processes involved. 

The researchers recommended further research on the optimal frequency of interventions with VR mental health tools for older adults. Such knowledge would help healthcare providers determine how often exposure is necessary for patients to reap mental health benefits. Additionally, the amount of time per virtual reality mental health session is needed to determine the optimal effectiveness of virtual nature exposure.

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