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Grenfell's Ross O'Brien on using Virtual Reality to positively impact mental health

Deputy Director of the Grenfell Health and Wellbeing Service shares how they’re using virtual reality to increase access to psychological therapies in a blog published by NHS England. 

Deputy Director of the Grenfell Health and Wellbeing Service shares how they’re using virtual reality to increase access to psychological therapies in a blog published by NHS England. 

Ross writes, 

"What if I told you that I had found a way to increase access to psychological therapies whilst standing on a busy UK high street by using a virtual reality (VR) headset that puts passerby’s on a roller-coaster? Would you believe me? This is what I am currently testing with my digital pioneers’ network.

The reality, virtual or otherwise, is that VR can have a positive impact on mental health.

And we need to see if it is replicable and whether it could be scaled up so it is of benefit to services across the country.

So what is the idea..?

I manage the Grenfell Health and Wellbeing Service, a service established following the Grenfell Tower Tragedy in June 2017 to offer mental health support to the survivors, bereaved and the affected community. In the initial weeks and months following the fire, it was clear that we would have to trial a number of new ways to reach out to the community who were not trusting of government agencies. As well as knocking on people’s doors and visiting their places of work, we started to offer access to VR in public spaces.

At first, VR was simply a way of socially connecting with the community and doing something interesting and fun. However, we soon realised that the community was very accepting of VR, and responded positively to the person offering the VR. This led us to the idea of trying to screen some of the people we talked to after they had used VR. And this is where what I like to call the ‘happy accidents’ began…

Firstly we found people were very receptive to a conversation immediately following the VR experience.
A mixture of positive energy, adrenalin from using the VR itself and a sense of shared experience created a level of trust and openness between clinician and viewer.

We were then able to ask if people were from the local area and had they been affected by Grenfell, or did they know anyone who had. Rather than the usual lukewarm reaction following a knock at their door, we found that people following a VR experience at a community event or psycho-education session were more positively disposed to talking about what they knew, saw or felt about the fire. This took us by great surprise at first, but when it continued to happen consistently, we knew that we were on to something.

The Gains…

Our normal practice is to hand out flyers or leaflets to make people aware of the service and hope that they might refer at a later date. However due to our ‘first happy accident’ with VR and the resulting positive engagement, people have been happy to be screened straight away.

Our training therapists were present and able to use the established positive engagement to identify whether people had signs and symptoms of trauma straight away.

The ‘second happy accident’ was an ability to easily engage high numbers of traditionally ‘hard to reach’ groups as everyone wants a go at VR. We found that race, culture, gender or age weren’t prohibitive factors to engagement, and critically, screening too. It is a well-established fact that fewer men, older adults and black, minority ethnic and refugee community members are represented in IAPT services nationally. So to be able to engage these groups in equal numbers and talk have a safe conversation about a difficult and traumatic event in a public space has been a revelation.

What next….?
We want to see if we can replicate these ‘happy accidents’ with VR across North-West London to start, and then look to the possibility to scale up nationally. We are still learning as we go. NHS procurement, adoption and understanding amongst the staff group are still issues which need to be ironed out. But the initial signs are very positive.

It’s clear from our work so far that the potential applications for VR and health are endless. We are hearing about all sorts of exciting work in the UK and further afield. We would welcome any conversations about learning, sharing and collaborating to enhance the work we are doing.

Follow our progress on Twitter through the hashtags #grenfellnhs #vr4good #digitalpioneers2018