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Stigmatizing Mental Health In The Face Of Breakthrough: Where “Groundbreaking” Becomes “Weird”



Running a startup in the seemingly Brave New World of using virtual reality to support mental health, it’s probably an understatement to say I eagerly keep my ear pressed to the ground for any rumblings of news or press coverage related to the use of virtual reality (VR) in healthcare and therapy. Virtual reality has arguably had a bit of an underwhelming public re-emergence over the past few years, and while I remain a staunch believer of the long-term viability of the technology, much of the recent press focuses on its inability to break through the barrier to widespread consumer adoption has others less convinced. It should come as no surprise, then, that I was thrilled to see the groundbreaking work being done by Mel Slater and his team at the University of Barcelona profiled in an article on Fast Company this week.


As co-director of the University’s Experimental Virtual Environments for Neuroscience and Technology Lab, Mel has been leading some of the most fascinating and promising research into the neurological underpinnings of the virtual reality experience and has used the technology to investigate phenomena ranging from the out-of-body experience of “life after death” to the relationship between witnessing sexual harassment and subsequent acceptance of violence against women. Mel’s work on self-compassion in his team’s Sigmund Freud “body swapping” experience, the focus of the aforementioned Fast Company article, was in fact a hugely influential and inspirational factor in my professional transition into the field of virtual reality for mental healthcare, so it’s safe to assume I was particularly thrilled to see the work reaching a general audience. Unfortunately, my excitement was immediately tarnished by an unshakable pang of disappointment when I read the article’s competing headlines, “The weirdest VR experience yet could make you happier” and “VR as therapy? Pretend to be Freud in this weird experience”.


Since starting my virtual reality-based mental health services company last year, I have increasingly found myself discussing with audiences the reality of the global mental health crisis, and its magnitude is both stunning and heartbreaking. On its low end of estimates, the World Health Organization estimates that nearly 20% of the global adult population, about 1 billion people worldwide, have a mental or substance use disorder; in the United States, suicide claims more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined; and mental health-related illnesses are estimated to cost the global economy $1 trillion annually. And while its nature is likely highly complex and stemming from factors as diverse as historical scientific misunderstandings and traditional societal ideals of health, beauty, and normalcy, a long-standing and stubborn stigmatization of mental disorders and the individuals experiencing them continues to confound efforts to battle the epidemic. This stigma, the thinking that individuals with mental disorders are somehow “abnormal”, “different”, or “weird” when compared with traditionally “healthy” society, continues to create societal and personal barriers for many individuals who might otherwise seek and receive care that they desperately need. And it’s the use of one, stigmatizing word that so disappointed me in Fast Company’s treatment of Slater’s work and the subject of mental health more generally: “weird”.


When compared with more traditional techniques and even some other cutting-edge technologies, medical and therapeutic applications of virtual reality certainly seem unconventional, but that is exactly what’s so exciting about the technology’s potential. Virtual reality has shown promise in educating and training surgeons to make surgical procedures safer and even in the genesis of entirely new procedures themselves. Research has shown significant improvements in range of motion and decreases in reported pain when utilizing virtual reality during physical therapy exercises. And when applied in these contexts, virtual reality is frequently touted as “amazing”, “groundbreaking”, and “revolutionary”. Mel Slater’s work and the work of other pioneering individuals using virtual reality to understand how we might make dramatic improvements in the state of global mental healthcare is equally worthy of receiving these accolades, but it seems that all too frequently the stigma-associated words “weird”, “bizarre”, and “crazy” end up finding their way into discussions of mental health-related applications of virtual reality. While we live during an era where journalism is increasingly under constant scrutiny and often seeming unfairly so, it’s important to remember that the words we use can frequently carry weight beyond their measure. And to think that Fast Company’s description of Mel Slater and his team’s amazing, groundbreaking, and revolutionary advancements of neurological and psychological applications of virtual reality technology as “weird” might contribute to the already existing barriers between pain and hope that so many millions of individuals around the world face every day is disappointing to say the very least.


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