GMMH and the University of Manchester host ecosystem event on XR in mental health | News and Events

GMMH and the University of Manchester host ecosystem event on XR in mental health

On Thursday 15 February, sixty-six people including: digital experts, service users, mental health practitioners and researchers met at CityLabs to explore new avenues for extended reality (XR) in mental healthcare.  

Long-standing innovation partners, the University of Manchester and Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (GMMH) want to drive the integration of immersive technologies in mental health treatment. Their respective Digital Futures and Innovation teams brought together experts from across the country to showcase existing technologies, ongoing research studies and treatments already being used in the NHS.  

The goal of the full-day conference was to facilitate new collaborations, develop research ideas and build new partnerships to drive forward this area of mental health care. Round table discussions were interspersed throughout the day where presenters and attendees could explore XR research ideas, challenges and opportunities. 

Professor Chris Taylor, Director of Digital Futures and the Associate Vice President for Digital and Innovation at the University of Manchester, and Professor Tony Warne, Chair of the GMMH board, welcomed attendees and spoke to the importance of digital innovation such as XR in their respective organisations.

Damien Longson, Director of Research & Innovation at GMMH
Damien Longson, Director of Research & Innovation at GMMH

Dr Damien Longson, Director of Research & Innovation at GMMH, chaired the event and first welcomed Professor Panos Constantinides, Professor of Digital Innovation and Digital Learning Lead for Executive Education at Alliance Manchester Business School. Professor Constantinides elaborated on the role of healthcare ecosystems for digital transformation, and how they can mitigate risk and reduce challenges in coordination and cooperation.  

XR Therapeutics: Treating Anxiety and Phobias for People with ASC & LD  

Jeremy Parr and Billy Webber from XR Therapeutics presented evidence and case examples of XR for treating anxiety and phobias. One example was of a young man with a serious fear of dogs, which was preventing him from leaving the house and working. Through the XR treatment, he overcame his fear to such an extent that he became a dog owner. On the subject of commercialisation, Prof Parr stated "it's not about the money, it's about the impact of getting a useful intervention, deployed across the health system, to children and young people." 

AVATAR Therapy: Extended Reality Therapy for Auditory Hallucinations  

Dr Tom Ward from Kings College London showed recordings of AVATAR Therapy in practice and the audience heard a service user recount how the balance of power and control in relation has shifted away from the oppressive voice and reductions in perception of omnipotence of voices.  

Both Avatar Therapy and XR Therapeutics discussed how, in principle, but not yet in practice, XR therapy could be delivered by AI. 

gameChange VR: Exposure Therapy for People with Psychosis and Agoraphobia  

The gameChange presentation was the headline of the morning session, since GMMH was a site in the research project, and has led the way in the real world implementation the journey from literature study on the need for such an intervention, the co-design, development and delivery of the randomised controlled trial by service users, along with the positive impact on the lives of service users in Trafford, supported with VR exposure therapy, by GMMH Peer Mentors.  

Attendees and presenters alike were particularly moved by Toby, a GMMH service user who engaged in gameChange VR therapy to treat his agoraphobia. Having barely left the house for some years, over the course of his treatment he managed to overcome his fears of public transport to come to the event at CityLabs and speak in front of a full room of people, travelling fifty-two stops on the bus!  

An attendee tries out gameChange VR
An attendee tries out gameChange VR

UKRI and MindTech: The Possibilities and Challenges of XR in Mental Health  

Jane Guest of UKRI drew attention to the £20m investment by Innovate UK into the 'Mindset' programme which aims to accelerate treatment by leveraging immersive digital therapies to offer faster and more accessible support for individuals with mental health concerns. A funding call is due to be announced in September with emphasis on therapies for serious mental illness. 

Aislinn Gómez Bergin has been researching and contributing to the development of XR interventions for over ten years. In her presentation, she explored the complexity of regularity, governance, PPI, procurement, and deployment associated with XR in Mental Health. She described how applying systems developed for physical health to mental health technology is somewhat of an unchartered terrain, creating a range of obstacles on route.   

As well as the round table discussions, attendees had the opportunity to experience some of these technologies first-hand.  This included seeing an AVATAR therapy session and experiencing the customisable exposure therapy used in XR Therapeutics. The audience learnt about the Data Visualisation Observatory at Alliance Manchester Business School, including a project where they have visualised mental health of social media posts by interrogating visual image colour tone, saturation and composition in the context of self-reported emotional status of the person posting the image.  

Attendees could also put on a VR headset to try out gameChange VR Therapy, starting in the virtual therapist’s room and transitioning to public settings which users may find distressing, such as a shop or public transport. The team behind The Decision Bridge asked attendees to walk across a glass bridge above a busy street and try to avoid panes that may break, looking to understand the decision-making we make around random events and test the gambler’s fallacy.  

An attendee experiences The Decision Bridge on VR
An attendee experiences The Decision Bridge on VR

Finally, Dr Aislinn Gómez Bergin chaired a panel discussion featuring Dr Thomas Ward, Kate Kelly, Professor Jeremy Parr, and Jane Guest, to bring together the themes of the day. The audience asked the panel questions, and contributed to ideas of the challenges, opportunities, and research areas that may bring XR-enabled treatment to people more quickly. 

Thank you to our wonderful guest speakers and attendees for joining us at this engaging event. In case you missed it, you can view slides from the event here. You can also watch video recordings of the presentations and the panel discussion on the Digital Futures YouTube channel

You can find out more about Digital Futures at the University of Manchester here, and more about Research & Innovation at GMMH here.  

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