Using Virtual Reality to Help People with Acute Mental Health Conditions

March 20, 2023

Aileen Jackson, Head of Mental Health at the HIN, writes about the promising results from a pilot of virtual reality (VR) relaxation technology on mental health wards.

A scuba diving experience with wild dolphins. A sunny meadow in the Alps. A coral reef. A sunny mountain meadow with animals. A guided mindfulness meditation on the beach. A session of Tibetan sound bowls. These are some of the images and sounds that have helped to reduce stress for people with acute mental health issues.

Learning about how a cutting-edge virtual reality (VR) relaxation innovation has supported people with acute mental health conditions has been truly inspirational and uplifting. After being made available on an acute in-patient mental health ward, the VR headset was, perhaps unsurprisingly, well received by service users and staff. So why is this intervention not routinely offered on all mental health wards?


The project was made possible through a Health Innovation Network innovation grant back in 2019. It was developed by virtual reality pioneer Dr Simon Riches, Highly Specialist Clinical Psychologist, in partnership with Kings College London and VRelax.

The pilot involved 42 service users at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, of which 28 were inpatients and 14 were attending outpatients. The most common diagnoses for those who participated were schizophrenia, schizotypal and delusional disorders. All service users had one session of virtual reality relaxation.

How did VR help?

Positive outcomes were reported by all 42 participants, including significant reductions in stress, anxiety, and sadness, and significant increases in relaxation, happiness, and connection to nature.

A particularly interesting learning for me was how the virtual reality experience translated into the real world. Just one session resulted in participants being more open to trying new things and getting out into real world nature. There are also really promising indications that providing a calming VR experience can lead to a reduction in violence and aggression on the wards.

As with all new innovations there are some lessons to learn. Some practical issues were encountered around navigating the VR devices both for clinicians and service users, and some clinicians reported disconnect with participants as they were unable to see and experience the VR at the same time. However, in general clinicians were enthusiastic about the benefits of the intervention.

The main conclusion is that virtual reality relaxation can be a powerful tool in the context of often-stressful psychiatric wards, enabling service users to have a virtual break to visit beaches or mountains. This is especially pertinent to service users in south London and in any populated urban area, who don’t have ready access to peaceful, natural environments.

Given these promising results, I would encourage mental health wards to consider how they can offer this low-cost and potentially highly beneficial option to service uses.

Read the Full Evaluation Report

Find out more about the impact of virtual reality relaxtion for acute mental health conditions in the evaluation report.

Read the evaluation report