Substance abuse is a problem that remains to be prevalent in our society.

3.4 million Australians reported to have used an illicit drug in the year 2019 while over 4 million people in Australia are reported to be suffering with some form of drug dependency, according to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2019.

Drug rehabilitation programs are helping people in an array of ways to become more independent, fulfilled and successful in their lives. There are many forms of treatment used to assist with the rehabilitation. Among a few popular ones are Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), 12-step facilitation and Motivational Interviewing (MI). In addition, there is yoga, meditation and exercises, which have been proven to be helpful to get the body and mind to feel at its best.

With the addition of new technologies every day, there are a number of ways these therapies can be practiced by patients.

 Virtual Reality and Personalised Therapies

Virtual Reality is replacing textbooks and online videos for rehabilitation treatments. It works by immersing a person into virtual environments where trial and error can be experienced in a safe and controlled manner. Virtual Reality contains simulations of real-life situations while engaging the patient’s visual and auditory senses.

Immersive Virtual Reality scenarios are helping patients build a stronger sense of self, gain more confidence, stronger willpower and better decision-making skills. By going through scenarios in VR environments patients can realise and navigate through their triggers, feelings of self-doubts, and through exposure to risky environments, participants can practice self-restraint and learn life-long strategies to manage their addictions and ensure their longevity.  

Earlier delivered through role playing activities, now therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Exposure Therapy are being delivered through VR.

Exposure Therapy:

Exposure therapy is implemented through exposing the patient to a number of triggering scenarios and stimuli, in order to familiarise them to the situation while understanding and perfecting their response to it. This can be varied amongst party situations, peer pressure etc.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT):

This therapy is beneficial in understanding the self’s response and behaviour when it comes to situations of temptations and even withdrawal symptoms. CBT is used to treat a variety of different psychological issues, substance dependence being one of them. It helps in coming up with coping mechanisms to keep in mind when the patient is faced with difficult situations.

Virtual Reality is stepping into this arena and helping deliver these therapies to clients in rehabilitation centres as well as to therapists. These therapies can be personalised according to the needs of the patient and be best suited towards their recovery. By immersing oneself into situations of such kind which involve triggering drug and substance abuse but practicing restraint helps the patient gain more self-worth to implement when they step into the real world on their own and have to face such situations. Virtual Reality also involves virtual therapy by putting the patient amongst supportive and helpful people and support groups. It also enables virtual therapy by putting the patient with a therapist and having consultation sessions.

Benefits of VR Treatments for Family and Friends

“Incremental changes in drug using behaviour along with incremental improvements in emotional coping skills are realistic and achievable goals,” says Australian organisation ‘Family Drug Support’ (FDS) who are actively working towards providing care to affected family and friends of drug users. Providing caring and empathetic advice towards concepts of abstinence and how to lovingly deal with a family member while setting healthy boundaries and understanding the inner workings of the disease. Taking steps like ‘harm reduction approach’ and active steps to learn to separate behaviour from the individual, the family learns to cope and help their loved ones through difficult times like these. 

Families and friends who are coping with the challenges of recovery and supporting their loved ones, will face many difficulties. What to say or not to say to the struggling member, how to provide adequate help as well as take care of themselves in the process can be difficult to navigate. Meditation sessions or empathy scenarios run through VR bring a sense of stability while putting you in the shoes of your friend or family member who is going through a difficult time while making you aware of what it feels like. This can help in understanding your loved one and provide them with empathetic responses to enable their growth. VR brings in a sense of security by experiencing such scenarios which can also help kids learn and be more aware and emotionally intelligent to deal with crisis.

VR scenarios that focus on such empathy and exposure training helps family and friends become less judgmental and increasingly more supportive. Therapy consultation sessions with psychologists experienced through Virtual Reality are used in moments of hardships making it easily accessible to navigate through relapse and other difficult situations.

With this modern addiction treatment tool at hand, we can enhance and speed up the recovery process. Thus, now more than ever, is the right time for health professionals to embrace Virtual Reality as a viable training tool for those suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.

Written by Simran Singh

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