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CBT virtual reality set to revolutionise social anxiety treatment for children

07 July 2022

In collaboration with Sheffield Children’s NHS Trust, Sheffield Hallam University researchers have developed tailored, home-based VR to help tackle social anxiety disorders.

Sheffield Hallam University has been awarded £35,000 to develop immersive virtual reality (VR) scenarios to help alleviate symptoms amongst children.

The bespoke virtual interactions will be tailored for paediatric patients with social anxiety in collaboration with staff and patients at Sheffield Children's NHS Foundation Trust. Scenarios will include everyday environments, such as in the home, neighbourhoods and shops. These environments will be designed with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in mind to provide challenging features to encourage coping mechanisms. 

Social anxiety disorder is a long-lasting and overwhelming fear of social situations and affects around 10 per cent of children and young people. Children with SAD suffer from distress, fear, avoidance of social activities, poor school attendance and problems with concentration, sleep and diet. They can have uncontrollable outbursts, negative thoughts and physical symptoms that lead to depression. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have caused symptoms of SAD to increase in schoolchildren. Early intervention is key to minimise the need for high-intensity therapy and medication, and the condition is more difficult to reverse when older. 

The home-based tech will also help to address the challenges around SAD clinic waiting times, capacity and accessibility, which have also been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic. 

Under traditional SAD treatment, a patient receives 12 to 15 one-hour weekly sessions, which include gradual exposure and prevention. The use of VR at home will allow the interactive aspects of therapy to be accessible daily rather than weekly and reduce the number of face-to-face sessions to four. This would allow the NHS to increase capacity for the number of children treated for SAD. 

Ivan Phelan, principal research fellow at Sheffield Hallam University and director of Impact VR said: “Therapists have seen the value of virtual reality for treating social anxiety disorder but have found that they are only for adults. 

“No system is currently available that utilises immersive VR to deliver CBT to paediatric patients suffering from SAD at home. We are eager to address this unmet need and have started working with children and psychiatrists on developing an innovative system for children suffering from social anxiety disorders.” 

Professor Paul Dimitri, Honorary Professor of Child Health at Sheffield Hallam University and Director of Research & Innovation and consultant paediatric endocrinologist at Sheffield Children's NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Technology is transforming the way we deliver healthcare for children and young people. Virtual reality offers the opportunity to treat mental and physical health conditions early on in life in the home environment, meaning less hospital time, and more time for educational and social activities.

"This ground-breaking research to develop a novel way to treat SAD in young people is likely to be more engaging and will revolutionise and accelerate the ability for healthcare professionals to deliver this much-needed care, as mental health conditions such as SAD have increased.” 

The project, which has been funded by a Medical Research Council Confidence in Concept grant, is the first of its kind to explore the use of VR for SAD in children. 

The Sheffield Hallam Impact VR research team has previously developed and deployed immersive VR scenarios, involving activities such as climbing, cooking, and archery, to aid the physiotherapy and rehabilitation of adult amputees, burns patients and children with upper and lower limb injuries. 

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