Published: Feb. 27, 2019

Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers anymore. As part of a groundbreaking initiative, CU Boulder’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) is piloting the use of VR to treat students working through mental health conditions.

The new program, available to students now, aims to integrate VR with traditional therapy techniques for students facing anxiety, depression and other common mental health issues. The technology can also be used to treat phobias such as the fear of heights (acrophobia), the fear of public speaking (glossophobia) and the fear of insects (entomophobia).

“VR allows us to fully immerse students in environments that would otherwise be difficult,” said CAPS Director Monica Ng.

Exposure therapy is an evidence-based treatment to address anxiety and phobias, but the integration of technology into the therapy setting has been very limited on college campuses due to lack of resources, Ng noted.

Ng, who is spearheading efforts to introduce a suite of nontraditional counseling options to students, is excited about VR’s potential to help students make meaningful progress toward their mental health goals. Recently, she introduced canine therapy for students who find interacting with a therapy dog relaxing during counseling sessions.

Virtual reality therapy (VRT) will be offered to students on a limited basis starting this semester, with a single headset available at the CAPS VR lab. Initial VRT programs will include guided meditations and simulation programs to address phobias.

Ng said additional programs will become available soon after the launch, and students who are interested in integrating VRT into their current treatment plans should talk with their CAPS counselor.

“VRT is not for everyone,” she said. “It’s important to have a conversation with your counselor to determine if this is the right treatment course for you.”

CU Boulder is partnering with the CU Anschutz Medical Campus to expand a VRT program on the medical campus, too, Ng said.

The Technology Innovation Network at Anschutz will use wireless headsets to enable practitioners to provide VRT within their own offices in addition to its existing VR lab.

CAPS is also working with the Community and Behavioral Health department in the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Denver to create customized therapy programs, including one designed to address test anxiety by featuring simulated versions of real-world CU Boulder classrooms. Program expansions are expected to roll out this spring.

Learn more about Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) and the Virtual Reality Therapy Program.