How Virtual Reality Could Improve the Lives of Refugees

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SASKATOON, Saskatchewan — Virtual reality today is a “three-dimension, computer-generated environment” that allows a person to have an immersive, interactive experience. The range of immersion tools can include the commonly known headset to omnidirectional treadmills. While most people think of virtual reality technology for things like video games, it has a wide range of uses. VR has previously been considered a luxury for those in high-income nations; however, it is now more accessible to low-income populations in developing countries. Increased affordability could have an incredible impact on the world. In fact, some companies are using virtual reality to improve the mental health of Syrian refugees.

When virtual reality cameras first came onto the market, they were expensive and inaccessible to the general public. In 2016, VR headsets cost around $400. But in the past four years, the cost of a VR headset has become more affordable due to innovative technology and lower costs of production. For example, the Google Cardboard costs less than $20. There are many other more refined options that still cost less than $100.

Mental Health Issues in Refugee and Poverty-Stricken Populations

Due to methodological limitations, the data about the prevalence of mental illness in refugees has been inconsistent. However, studies in recent years are gaining a more comprehensive view of mental health among refugees. One recent study found that refugees experience high rates of PTSD and depression and appear to struggle for many years after being displaced. The results also suggest that refugees may experience significantly higher rates of PTSD and depression than the general population.

The connection between poor mental health and poverty has been studied extensively. According to the World Health Organization, “four out of every 10 people suffering from mental health disorders” are living in low and middle-income countries. Mental illness also increases the likelihood of unemployment by four times and reduces the likelihood of graduating from secondary school by one-third. Therefore, addressing mental health issues in refugees and those living in poverty increases their chances of improving their quality of life and lifting themselves out of poverty.

How VR can Transform Mental Health Care

Using virtual reality to deal with trauma isn’t new. Some research started as early as 1997. Research has shown that VR is a revolutionary tool in mental health care. Extensive research has already shown that “VR can help with phobias, treat PTSD,” alleviate feelings of paranoia in people with psychotic disorders and reduce social anxiety. Other conditions that can benefit from VR are substance abuse and autism.

Virtual reality as a treatment works similarly to the method of imagining a traumatic event in order to desensitize oneself and unlearn one’s anxiety response. VR makes this method more effective by creating immersive environments that reflect specific traumatic experiences in a controlled way. Some studies have shown that patients with post-traumatic stress disorder that also struggle with depression have had better results with VR therapy compared with other kinds of therapy. This is likely because it can be harder to simply imagine a trauma memory when a person is depressed.

Using Virtual Reality Therapy to Help Syrian Refugees

One way that virtual reality is making a lasting impact is through immersive programs for Syrian refugees. In 2017, an MIT Media Lab in Dubai began developing innovations to create solutions to challenges and issues in the Middle East. One of those innovations was a VR experience called Sphyria that allowed Syrian refugees to see Syria as it was before the war caused so much destruction.

One of the students that created Sphyria decided to build upon the idea and created the start-up Sfearia, “a cross-platform VR hub” to help address mental health problems in Lebanon. Research shows that around “85% of the population” in Lebanon experiences some kind of mental health issue. Virtual reality therapy can offer a lower-cost solution for addressing those issues, according to the founder of the program.

In 2019, the global organization Mercy Corps partnered with the University of Bradford to create the BReaTHe project that also uses VR experiences to help younger Syrian refugees feel more connected to their homeland and to build personal and societal resilience.

Both programs were recently developed, but the impacts have been incredible so far. Participants have been moved by being able to see Syria in a different light. One participant of BReaTHe was a young mother that had long been displaced from Syria. Returning home through virtual reality helped “her deal with the trauma of war” and displacement.

The Future of VR in Mental Health Care

Virtual reality therapy could be an incredible tool to address the prevalence of mental illness in refugees as well as mental illness and poverty. With the cost of VR headsets decreasing and the development of VR therapy programs for refugees already underway, there are promising outcomes on the horizon. Providing refugees with an affordable, accessible way to address some of the mental health issues could also have a multifaceted positive impact on their lives and their futures. VR can enable refugees to rise out of poverty and improve their lives.

Charlotte Severns
Photo: Flickr