How VR could help at-risk youth

Can virtual reality prevent kids with behavioral issues who are at risk of causing violence from going down the wrong path?

Nick Thomson, Ph.D. believes so. The forensic psychologist and associate professor at VCU is leading a series of studies that use VR environments, intertwined with science, to provide evidence-based therapies for adolescents. The attempt is to prevent bullying, violent behaviors, and retaliatory violence. The youth Thomson sees in his lab show signs of externalizing disorders that could cause serious legal issues or violent episodes later in life.

“These kids are playing games, all while they’re learning violence-prevention strategies,” says Thomson, director of research for the Injury and Violence Prevention Program at VCU Health. His work centers on improving mental health and our understanding of the development of mental and behavioral disorders, and is based on his own VR research from more than a decade ago.

With the support of VCU TechTransfer and Ventures, he founded Arche VR (“ark-ee VR”), a startup that provides a series of VR mental health treatment and psychological assessments. One game (or, “intervention” as clinicians say), Resilience VR, exposes youth to common bullying scenarios using immersive storylines within the VR headset. Funded in part by the Centers for Disease Control, researchers can watch the reactions of participants, then direct intervention strategies to them.

A psychological assessment, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), uses VR to test for “acute threats” or fear. Wearing the headset, kids are immersed inside scary scenarios being in a crowded elevator or public speaking, for example while being plugged up to electrodes. Thomson and his team analyze their physiological reaction driven by the autonomic nervous system, and also ask the adolescent how they feel. “We can look at how they respond to fear, and how that contributes to the stability of conduct disorder over time,” he says.

For a researcher, Thomson says, VR offers a controlled environment and a number of scenarios that would be too costly and variable to construct in the real world.

“Our goal as psychologists is to understand what drives behavior or the development of disorders. We want to make the virtual stimuli as real and ethical as possible,” Thomson says. “What we’re able to do with VR is really immerse the participant into research environments where we’re getting authentic responses.”

But, he notes, VR is merely a tool in the chest. “Virtual reality will never replace having clinicians and psychologists,” he says. “But what it does do is makes standard practice of mental health available to a large number of individuals.”