Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Editor’s Note: Virtual Reality Moving Into the Mainstream
By Kate Jackson
Social Work Today
Vol. 23 No. 4 P. 4

With virtual reality, which offers a view of real-life situations through computer-generated three-dimensional simulation, it’s possible to have access to, and interact in, an alternate reality—one that may stimulate almost all the senses. It’s a concept that goes back at least to the first flight simulator in 1929 and, in the 1950s, the Sensorama—a contraption created by Morton Heilig that allowed individuals an immersive experience when watching films. A vibrating chair, stereo speakers, and stereoscopic 3D displays created the sensations that produced the illusion. The invention even generated olfactory stimulation. Heilig went on to create the precursor to today’s head-mounted display, a headset that offered 3D vision and stereo sound but didn’t track movement. The following year, a true head-mounted display was created for use in the military. All that was missing was computer-generated images.

When this technology was nascent—even when the name virtual reality was coined in 1987—it’s likely that few imagined the significant role it would come to play in the assessment and treatment of illnesses, particularly mental illnesses. These applications accelerated in the 1990s, first to help doctors visualize anatomy and plan for surgeries, facilitate education, and, later, to treat a variety of conditions. Before long, the technology began to be used by patients to manage pain, mitigate side effects of chemotherapy, and help in physical and cognitive rehabilitation.

Now, virtual reality is being used in a broad range of applications in mental health, including in the assessment and treatment of a range of phobias, eating disorders, anxiety, and PTSD. In our last issue, we addressed the ways virtual reality can be used to increase empathy among individuals treating veterans suffering from chronic pain and thus improve outcomes. In this issue, Patricia A. Huber-Villano, LCSW, writes about virtual reality applications that are helping people with schizophrenia, focusing on its potential for psychosocial rehabilitation.

Also in this issue are features on another technology that’s proving exceptionally effective in the treatment of behavioral health issues—eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR—as well as on social work documentation and nonprofit social work.

— Kate Jackson