Study Points to Virtual Reality as Treatment for Depression

Woman experiencing virtual realityVirtual reality could promote self-compassion in people with depression, potentially breaking a negative thought cycle, a small study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open reveals.

Previous research has found virtual reality may help with other psychological challenges. A 2015 study found people with an alcohol addiction could practice dealing with temptation thanks to the assistance of virtual reality. In 2014, a study pointed to the role of virtual reality in helping veterans with posttraumatic stress face their trauma through virtual exposure therapy.

The Effect of Virtual Reality on Depression

A research team led by Chris Brewin, a professor in University College London’s Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, first developed the virtual reality technique with a group of volunteers without depression. They then tested it on 15 people ages 23-61 with depression. The group included 10 men and five women.

The procedure required participants to wear a virtual reality helmet while counseling a virtual child crying in distress. As participants showed compassion toward the virtual child, the crying gradually subsided. Next, the roles were reversed, and participants embodied the distressed child while listening to an adult provide the same counseling they had just offered. Each “therapy” session lasted eight minutes. Participants repeated the sessions three times over a week, and then again one month later.

Nine patients reported experiencing a reduction in symptoms of depression, with four of this group experiencing a reduction the study’s authors deemed “clinically significant.” Interviews with participants showed those who reported a reduction in symptoms had higher levels of self-compassion than at the beginning of the study.

Future Research on Virtual Reality

Though the study’s results are promising, the small sample makes it difficult to generalize the results to a larger population. Brewin and his team say more research is necessary to determine how virtual reality might affect a larger sample of people with depression.


  1. Brazier, Y. (2016, February 15). Immersive virtual reality helps patients with depression. Retrieved from
  2. Cukan, A. (2015, March 25). Virtual reality therapy may help veterans with PTSD. Retrieved from
  3. Falconer, C., Rovira, A., King, J. A., Gilbert, P., Antley, A., Fearon, P. . . . Brewin, C. R. (2016). Embodying self-compassion within virtual reality and its effects on patients with depression. British Journal of Psychiatry Open,2(1).
  4. Feller, S. (2015, June 24). Virtual reality may help treat alcoholism. Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Len


    February 16th, 2016 at 10:29 AM

    any thoughts on availability?
    it’s such a new thing, makes me think that this might not be anything that is readily available to most

  • Pat


    February 16th, 2016 at 2:11 PM

    I could see how something such as this really could help you to work through some things that you may have trouble doing IRL, but in a virtual world you may see how you can better control your actions and how doing certain things could actually help improve the way that you are feeling overall.

  • rebecca


    February 17th, 2016 at 1:33 PM

    I love it when we start thinking outside of the box and start coming up with new and innovative ways to help those who may have resisted treatment before or who may not have been successful. This could be an answer that they just did not realize that they were actually looking for.

  • Travis


    February 18th, 2016 at 10:44 AM

    and what is the likelihood that there will be more studies and larger sample sizes in the future?

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