March 10, 2020 – Oxford VR (OVR) has today announced the launch of ‘OVR social engagement’, the company’s new mental health intervention tool, which uses virtual reality technology to help individuals overcome anxious social avoidance, prevalent in multiple mental health conditions including agoraphobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and schizophrenia.
Founded in 2017, Oxford VR creates automated immersive psychological therapy interventions using virtual reality technology and evidence-based science to improve capacity and outcomes in mental healthcare. Developed by Oxford VR clinicians, OVR social engagement is a user-centred program that translates evidence-based cognitive-behavioural therapy through immersive virtual reality environments.
The program is delivered over half-hour weekly sessions. During a session, the user puts on a VR headset and enters a virtual world where they are guided by a virtual coach and required to complete a series of graded tasks in different situations, such as a street scene, on a bus, and in a shop – reflecting the everyday triggers of anxious social avoidance. Oxford VR states that it has taken great care to ensure the environments are life-like, interactive, and engaging.
The company cites that anxious social avoidance is a major unmet need in mental healthcare and can be one of the most debilitating features of mental illness. Individuals experience extreme distress and fear in public situations – especially when alone – such as going outside, using public transport, or being in a supermarket. For some, it can progress to a point of social isolation and affect overall health in a way that is comparable to the impact of obesity and cigarette smoking.
Anxious social avoidance is also common in individuals with addiction issues. In severe and complex mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, anxious social avoidance leading to isolation is frequently seen. Studies show that women are more likely than men to experience anxious social withdrawal.
Throughout the program the user gradually faces problematic situations to overcome their extreme distress and fear, to feel safer, more confident and more in control. The program is automated and does not require a qualified clinician and can be delivered by a trained member of staff.
The VR environments help reassure users that they can try out new things safely. By completing the tasks, users learn that they can cope in these situations. Furthermore, Oxford VR notes that evidence from other studies has confirmed that the behavioural changes made in the VR environments transfer to the real world.
Speaking about Oxford VR’s social engagement VR therapy, June Dent, Director, Clinical Partnerships at OVR, said: “Our vision is to turn the tide on life-interrupting mental illnesses pushing the boundaries of clinical excellence and new technology to transform lives. The immersive nature of VR provides a powerful new way to engage users and helps them to regain confidence, feel safe and overcome trigger situations. This innovative program has been created with the voices and expertise of people affected by anxious social avoidance and applies proven evidence-based psychological techniques.”
Oxford VR’s social engagement program is now available to NHS patients via providers of NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies and other UK mental healthcare providers.
Image credit: Oxford VR
 American Psychologist, Advancing Social Connection as a Public Health Priority in the United States, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Theodore F. Robles, David A. Sbarra, 2017
 Schizophrenia Bulletin, Studying and Treating Schizophrenia Using Virtual Reality: A New Paradigm, Daniel Freeman, 2008.
 Women are more likely to have the social anxiety (Kessler et al., 2005a). Agoraphobia is approximately four times more likely to be diagnosed in women than in men (Bekker et al., 1996). The prevalence of major depression is higher in women than in men (Cyranowski et al., 2000). Panic disorder is more common in women than in men (Joyce et al., 1989).
 The Lancet Psychiatry, Automated psychological therapy using immersive virtual reality for treatment of fear of height, Daniel Freeman, Polly Haselton et al, 2018