In times of crisis humanity seems to be able to focus better and innovate in order to overcome it. Today, mental health problems are very prevalent and are also rising at an alarming rate. Is it time to look at new innovative mental health treatment solutions?

Virtual Reality, a Mental Health Solution for Kids and Adolescents

It is a well established fact that in today's western societies we are facing an unprecedent mental health crisis. This has a lot to do with our own actions that we continue to do regardless of consequences such as media negativity and push towards division instead of unity, children and adolescents not being thought properly on how to face the huge gap between expectations and reality as well as, maybe the most harmful, the treating of children and adolescents with baby gloves whenever their emotions are involved which lead to them not being able to cope when they are no longer catered to. The reason there are so many anecdotes and jokes about how life hits you harder and harder the more you advance in years is partly because of this. The media complex, the educational system and a lot of parents as well have babied children so much that when they have to finally face something truly difficult like looking for a job in a harsh society a lot of youngsters brake down.

But aside from placing blame and pointing fingers, things that will have no effect on the overwhelming greed that runs everything we should be probably looking at a solution. Why specifically talk about the problems of children and adolescents? Because a lot of the mental health problems that we experience as adults either start from an early age or have triggers or trauma from childhood or teenage years.

Anxiety starts at an early age

Anxiety can start at a vey early age for seemingly innocuous things. It could be that the children did something wrong and are expecting punishment or it could be something more serious like hearing their parents argue or talk about separation. But one of the most common reasons is usually the fact that the anxiety from the parents will be transmitted to their children in one form or another. No matter the reason, in the end the parents or teachers need to notice the problems early in order to use some treatment method to alleviate them. But bringing children to a therapist can be another anxiety inducing experience. The children will not understand why do they have to talk to a stranger about their feelings and depending from case to case it might be difficult for the mental health professional to gain their trust.

Now let's not confuse things when we talk about anxiety. In this context we mean it as a mental health problem and not as a: "oops, I forgot to do my homework so the teacher is going to be mad" anxiety. This is because a little bit of anxiety can be felt from most of our daily activities including boiling eggs for example. But that is natural and normal as opposed to the mental health problem know as as anxiety disorder. The mental health condition refers to a problem which is a lot more severe in nature and which can disrupt our regular day to day lives. This is where our current education system if failing us. Children should be anxious about learning and doing their homework since it means they understand that they have to do that. If teachers stop giving them tests, or homework or reduce the difficulty because it might stress out the children they really don't understand the difference between a mental health condition and worrying about something. But we talked a lot about the how and why let's see if we can talk about a what as is what would be a solution to this. The answer is a two step program.

First teachers and schools in general must stop handling the children's learning and homework worries as if they are a mental health condition since they are not. Second instead of taking children to a stranger to talk about their emotions the use of virtual reality is a much more effective way of handling anxiety disorders. Virtual reality has several major advantages that parents should consider when thinking of getting their children treatment. Just the fact that the process can be undertaken in their own homes is a huge plus and makes the children feel safe. Then virtual reality will keep children a lot more focused on the treatment by presenting an amazing and interesting new world to them. This means that the mental health treatment process will be a lot more comfortable thus increasing its efficiency. Of course virtual reality is not only good at treating anxiety disorders but we will get into that later. It was important to talk about this first as it is one of the most common issue children and teens are facing today.

Phobias, pain management and Autism disorders

Numerous trials have been made and others are in progress where virtual reality is being used as a very effective tool in order to treat phobias manage and reduce pain and even help children with Autism get passed their fears of social interaction such as public transport or gatherings as well as teaching them how to behave in certain situations. Kids can develop several phobias that could lead to other problems such as a fear of the dark or Nyctophobia. Of course it is normal for people in general to have some fear towards the unknown, especially children but a phobia is different as it creates severe anxiety and depression over the specific trigger. Other phobias that have been shown to be treated to a great extent of success with virtual reality are pet phobias like fear of dogs, cats, lizards, etc.

Virtual reality is also great at reducing or eliminating needle phobia or anxiety surrounding getting a shot. Also, virtual reality is a great tool for pain management by tricking our brain to focus on something else. This can greatly help in cases where the patients cant get more analgesics or are either allergic to them or they can't receive them for any other reason. Reducing pain by distracting the brain is not a novel concept but nothing even comes close to virtual reality when it comes to immersing the person into a new world and tricking their senses.

Maybe not surprisingly virtual reality can also help children with Autism disorder. It can greatly aid them with their fears of social places and interactions for instance. It can also instill behaviors patterns and action for certain situation or correct others. Unlike phones, the TV or other distractions that parents and doctors provide for children on the spectrum, virtual reality has the huge advantage of also teaching them along with the treatment process. This alone should motivate more people to consider it including mental health professionals and the entire mental health industry as whole.

Adolescence may be the most critical stage for our mental health

Our teenage years are ripped with changes, from our bodies to how we perceive and interact with the world. It is also the time where we start overthinking things and getting to emotionally involved in everything, things that often lead to anxiety disorders, depression, anti-social behaviors and even substance abuse. At this age we start forming clicks and social bubbles that can both protect us and bring great harm to us if not handled properly.

This brings us back to the importance of education both at school and from parents at home. Adolescence is often considered the rebellious time for people and rightfully so since in this period of time teens will be a lot more easily influenced and swayed by strangers, teachers and friends instead of their family. So if the teachers will start confusing them or pointing them in the wrong direction this will be very detrimental to their mental health. It might be a small tangent but not every girl who acts more boyish or boy who likes pretty things are part of the LGBT. It may very well be traits of their personality which can change in time as their horizons broaden. But in today's society a lot of school faculty members seem to forget this fact and immediately stir teens that act slightly different to go into some extreme routes. I'm not saying some teens don't actually experience gender dysphoria or are starting to realize they like the same gender but the actual number is much lower than what some would like us to believe.

For a demographic that often touts diversity as the biggest strength the people that try to sway children one way or another seem to easily forget that people have different personalities as well as likes and dislikes. Thus not every boy who likes flowers or even plays with dolls is gay or the "wrong" gender and of course not every girl that play football and like short hair feels that she is a boy inside. What happened to just being a tomboy?

But tangent over, how can virtual reality help teens with their mental health problems. Firstly it is a much better solution than, again, bringing the teenagers to a therapist. If you do they might actually feel there is something wrong with them and close up even more. Second it keeps patients engaged as opposed to therapy which besides being invasive might feel boring and pointless to an adolescent. Lastly meeting a therapist in a virtual world in the form of an avatar will let the teens feel more comfortable with the treatment and even enjoy the process, thus making it more effective.

Another important development issue that virtual reality can help with in children and teens is motor skill disfunctions. Numerous trials have shown great success in accommodating patients with certain movements or training their brain to be able to fix certain impairments. Eating disorders also tend to appear in our teen years especially in girls who are very concerned about their body weight and would go to great  lengths in order to stay thin. Virtual reality can correct their behavior by showing them in virtual reality how the ideal body type should like like compared to the distorted version the adolescents aim to have.

In a way we are barely just scratching the surface of what virtual reality can do to help us, not only when it comes to mental health but it other industries as well. But most importantly for mental help it can help us with the current crisis we are facing while also making therapies and treatment more affordable, accessible and anonymous. If we can't prevent the current mental health crisis from developing because of many economical, social and political factors, then at least, we should offer a solution to treat those affected.

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Julian Sanda
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