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London-based Oxford VR and the US National Mental Health Innovation Center (NMHIC) are launching pilots using virtual reality (VR) therapy treatment programmes for mental health.

The partnership will involve testing Oxford’s VR’s suite of automated evidence-based treatment programmes, which use VR to treat mental health conditions such as fear of heights, social anxiety, depression and OCD and psychosis.

NMHIC is aiming to find, develop and put into practice big new ideas to prevent, treat and change the way people think about mental health. Oxford VR, an Oxford University spinout, provides a range of clinically-validated VR therapy for a range of mental health problems using immersive technology based on proven treatment protocols.

This new US-UK partnership “signifies an important collaboration to improve access to innovative mental health care treatments that have the potential to drive a major-breakthrough in mental health access and outcomes and provide important insights into global applications”, according to Oxford VR.

Commenting on the partnership, Mimi McFaul, deputy director at NMHIC, said: “We thoroughly vet technology companies and look for specific quality metrics. This includes whether or not the technology is backed by research, is scalable, and has the potential for significant clinical impact. Oxford VR meets all of these criteria and approaches mental health innovation with scaling and clinical impact in mind.”

Barnaby Perks, founding chief executive officer of Oxford VR, added: “We are very excited to partner with NMHIC which is a world-renowned organisation. Our collective vision is to turn the tide on life-interrupting mental illnesses by pushing the boundaries of clinical research excellence and technology to transform outcomes for service users.”

“VR therapy is an evidence-based treatment whose time has come and can hugely benefit both clinicians and service users with its user-centered design and digitally-enabled solution. Great care has been taken to make the treatment programs clinically challenging yet also engaging and even fun by leveraging exciting gamification technology.”

The partnership will initially focus on Oxford VR’s fear of heights treatment programme, which uses VR technology to simulate heights safely so that users can experience and work through their fears and anxieties in a controlled environment.

Users are guided by a virtual therapist through a series of tasks in a simulated shopping mall. By completing a series of tasks, users learn that they can use coping skills taught by the virtual coach to manage situations they previously found frightening.

The VR therapy will be implemented with the help of several community partners participating in the NMHIC Tech Innovation Network (TIN), including the Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD).

The TIN is a network of diverse clinical and community partners that leverages innovative technology to augment, accelerate and facilitate effective mental health services across a range of settings.

Debbie Boeldt, director of digital mental health at NMHIC, said: “We have learned a tremendous amount from the TIN. Members of the network are eager to engage in trying new technology for mental health. Through our partnership with community partners, we often hear about barriers related to limited access to technology for mental health and a shortage of mental health providers. Oxford VR provides an opportunity for clients to receive services through an evidence-based VR programme.”

Last month, Oxford VR partnered with insurance company AXA and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) to roll out its mental health VR treatment in Asia.

Dubbed the Yes I Can initiative, Oxford VR’s treatment has been made free to the public and AXA’s corporate customers as part of their employee benefits services.

Image credit: Oxford VR

Pictured: Barnaby Perks, Oxford VR co-founder and CEO; and Matt Vogl, executive director of MPH at NMHIC