Tech solutions help young people overcome anxieties


The Children’s Society is using virtual reality with practitioners and young people.

Exposure therapy can help young people to practice coping strategies for stressful school scenarios such as taking exams. Picture: Monkey Business/Adobe Stock
Exposure therapy can help young people to practice coping strategies for stressful school scenarios such as taking exams. Picture: Monkey Business/Adobe Stock
  • Tool to help reduce mild anxiety by encouraging familiarity with scenarios
  • Mental health pilot completed and care-based pilots ongoing, with plans for wider application

ACTION

Virtual Reality (VR) is not in itself a therapy, explains Kirsten Naudé, director of new ventures at The Children’s Society, but a “useful tool in the practitioners’ toolbox”.

The charity is conducting research into how the technology could reduce mild anxiety in young people, when facing challenges such as in school or in care.

Naudé believes that by offering an almost real world experience, VR can “help practitioners to engage well with young people and build positive relationships”.

“VR can be emotive, immersive, fun and as such offer an alternative engagement tool for discussing and helping to deal with difficult topics,” she says.

The charity knew from practitioners at its Birmingham mental health drop-in service Pause, that communicating about anxiety is a big challenge for young people, and this can delay them recieving the right support.

The team discovered that VR, via exposure therapy, had been helping adults with post-traumatic stress disorder, and took this as a starting point for their young people’s model.

Writing for a blog on the project, Ellen Fruijtier, a design researcher with the charity, explains that it aimed to use VR to help young people from Pause practice coping techniques for “real life scenarios” many struggle with, “from the safety of the drop-in environment and with a Pause practitioner present to guide them”.

Designers worked with practitioners to identify the challenges young people face and the coping techniques used.

More than 100 young service users were polled, suggesting that school environments were the most anxiety-inducing for them.

Co-design sessions with young people dug deeper to find key examples, such as being asked to read out loud in class, taking an exam under time pressure, and passing intimidating peers in corridors.

This led to a collaboration with VR specialists The Fred Company, which included filming the scenarios in 360° at a school.

Practitioners were trained to use the VR headsets and a three-month pilot followed in 2018, to test effectiveness with the staff and young people.

Two further pilots were then developed, that are running until May this year, which take on board the learning from the first.

One of them, again based at Pause, focuses on making VR accessible for young people with learning difficulties.

Fruijtier says: “We are starting to explore how VR can be used for mood regulation – helping young people with signs of ADHD stay calm using a meditative app, or helping young people that feel low feel more positive by doing something fun and active.”

The charity has also been working with Salford City Council and the area’s clinical commissioning group, to understand how the technology might help children in care.

The project has been “exploring how VR can be used for them to get a ‘peek’ into life” there, to make young people less anxious when they move there”, she adds.

Staff and young people at Salford semi-independent living centre Foundations House were at the heart of the 360 degree filming, and are featured introducing would-be users to the facilities.

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Salford’s pilot has so far produced some positive anecdotes, with potential in future for using VR for quite detailed familiarisation.

“Staff at the children’s home always do their best to provide a good-quality service to young people, however the young person did not understand some basic things, like where you do your laundry,” explains Fruijtier.

“Small things like this can feel confusing and make an already stressful transition a little harder.

“We realised that in addition to seeing the house beforehand, it would be nice to make sure all young people access the basic information they need to make the most of their time there to prepare for the transition to independence.”

Fruijtier also highlights the scope for using existing VR content in other settings, as an alternative to creating original material.

“A young person who previously wasn’t able to sit still and talk to us for more than two minutes because of his ADHD was able to talk to us for 30 minutes after doing some fun activities in VR,” she says.

It helped him to channel his excitement and then relax using a mindfulness app.

Click here for more in CYP Now's Technology in Children’s Services Special Report

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