How Avatars are taking us back to the future: Avatar feature  (25)

19 Nov 2019

How Avatars are taking us back to the future

Futuristic technology is helping mental health patients to 'open up'

What advice would you give your younger self? It’s a question people often ask themselves when experiencing guilt or remorse about past experiences. But what if there was a way to re-visit that younger person, re-live that bad experience and re-write history to escape a lifetime of regret - or more damaging consequences?

It all sounds very Matrix like, but psychologists at Mersey Care’s secure hospitals for people who have committed serious offences as a result of mental health issues, are using a pioneering therapy to help patients who struggle to open up about a traumatic past.

Avatar therapy involves patients designing and interacting with an avatar of themselves on a computer.

Mersey Care uses a programme developed by Oxford based company ProReal. The approach is part of a wider Global Digital Exemplar –the Trust is among only a handful of NHS organisations chosen to lead technical advancements to improve patient care.

Project Manager, Richie Harkness, who helped Mersey Care clinicians to use the ProReal software explains:

“The programme resembles a 3D video game which allows the user to create a cyber alter-ego of themselves and other characters. Avatars can express internal thoughts on screen and be put into a posture to convey defensiveness, anger or excitement. Props are available to create scenarios and build up a picture of past events.”

Principal Clinical Psychologist Elisabeth Hansen says results have been astounding. “We knew it was something special when Jules Carlisle our senior psychologist came back from a technology event excited at its potential for our patients.”

She explains why it’s different: “When something bad happens we process our feelings. But many of the people we care for have endured such terrible traumas that they cut themselves off mentally from painful emotions.  .

“Traditional therapies help people revisit their past, explore how they feel now and discuss how they want the future to look. But they can feel one dimensional. Through the avatar the person creates a 3D world on screen that they can control.

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They can channel their emotions through the avatar – if they express anger the avatar clenches its fists, showing them what their angry behaviour looks like to someone else. They can introduce symbols to represent their hopes and fears.

Clinical psychologist Greta McGonagle agrees: “It allows patients to think about how it feels to move away from situations. They become less inhibited…it gives them that permission to open up .”

Patients say it gives them a vision of their future. One man with paranoid schizophrenia and in secure hospitals for seven years, struggles to develop relationships. He said: “I like putting my family close to me on screen, realising how valuable people are to me and how much I miss them”

Another said: “I feel elated afterwards, so fresh. I lie down afterwards because I don’t want to disturb the thoughts it gives me.”

Careful supervision is needed, says Dr Hansen, as long buried emotions rise to the fore. “Such a visual way of reflecting, sometimes for the first time can be unsettling. But when a picture of what your future could be like is there in full colour in front of you it becomes exciting. Patients can see what they need to do, they start setting goals. There’s a sense of hope – some people have never felt that before...”

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