Improving mental health services for vulnerable children using VR technology

Profile picture for user Anh Nguyen By Anh Nguyen April 24, 2020
The Children’s Society in England and Wales is using Oculus headsets to learn how VR can help reduce anxiety in young people.

Image of someone using a VR headset
(Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay )

In a Covid-19 lockdown world, there’s an opportunity for technology like virtual reality (VR) to come into its own. But one organisation, The Children’s Society, has proved to be ahead of the curve.

Over the past few years, the young people’s charity has been exploring how VR can enhance its mental health services for vulnerable children in England and Wales. Specifically, it’s helped to reduce anxiety in young people experiencing it in scenarios from stressful situations at school to moving out of care.

Using “affordable and easy-to-use” Oculus headsets and working with creative studio, and VR experts, The Fred Company, the charity has been running pilots to see where VR can “add value”. Adam Groves, Design Lead at The Children’s Society, explains: 

We run a number of mental health drop-in centres, where young people can get support if they’re struggling with issues like anxiety or low mood. Our skilled staff help young people, using a range of tools and techniques. VR is an additional tool.

The charity started exploring VR in 2018, after analysing data from one of its mental health drop-in centres in Birmingham, called Pause.

Starting out

It learned anxiety and low mood were among the main issues that young people would present with at the centres, and decided these were areas where VR could help. Groves says:

Firstly, if a young person has anxiety, there are certain scenarios which may commonly trigger it. For example, being in a crowded place, being asked to speak aloud in front of a crowd, or being in high-stress situations.

Secondly, when young people visit our mental health drop-in centres, our staff equip them with coping techniques they can use when they’re faced with these scenarios. But it’s one thing practising them in a safe, drop-in centre, but another to have to use them in the heat of the moment.

We had already begun to explore the potential of VR to add value to our services, and so recognised it could help to overcome this challenge.

Before doing a pilot, the charity took a Google Cardboard to the centre and observed how people used it. It found children were already familiar with the technology, for example, having used it at school to learn about volcanoes.

With funding from Comic Relief and The Paul Hamlyn Foundation, The Children’s Society was able to carry out its first VR pilot, which was to support young people experiencing anxiety in school. Initial funding for this pilot was around £45,000.

We worked with young people, staff and VR experts (The Fred Company) to understand common, everyday, school-based scenarios which were associated with anxiety for many of the young people who accessed support in our Pause drop-in centre.

We then co-designed and created a number of VR (360 degree video) scenarios, which gave young people an opportunity to practise coping techniques while immersed ‘in’ such situations. These were used with young people from the safety of the drop-in environment and with a Pause practitioner to guide them through the experience.

Current pilot phase

Now in its second pilot, the charity hopes to reduce anxiety in young people transitioning out of the care system.

Working alongside some of those young people, the charity has created VR experiences that enable them to experience life at a semi-independent care unit,

Groves says that this has achieved two things: 

One, it can help young people and their support workers to prepare better for the move, discuss expectations, uncover needs, and to address any worries or myths young people may have about semi-independent living.

Two, because it’s immersive, it will enable young people to access and absorb information about the unit and semi-independent life more effectively.

The Fred Company provides technical support to the charity and has been involved from early on. Groves adds:

Fred played a valuable role in ensuring the VR experience was fit-for-purpose and were crucial in ensuring that the actual production of the content could be adjusted to the needs of the young people involved.

Benefits of VR for The Children’s Society

The charity is achieving things with VR technology that it couldn’t do before.

For example, users said the immersive nature of VR allowed them to experience virtual environments in a similar way to a real world experience. This induces stronger emotions, and makes people retain information better.

The charity is also able to create virtual worlds offering experiences that may not be accessible in real life.

Moreover, the technology can be a good ice breaker with young people who were previously hard to engage with, but were interested in the technology.

Also, the charity “noticed [VR] can shift the perceived power balance in relationships which, by their nature, generally place the adult or professional in a position of assumed superior knowledge and a position of power”.


However, context is “critical” to VR’s success, says Groves.

For example, the first pilot in a drop-in service, where young people might only visit once, without any pre-assessment, meant staff weren’t always able to judge whether VR was appropriate.

Groves had also underestimated the level of training practitioners would need to use the headsets. It rectified this by giving users the option to access the VR scenarios on a tablet or mobile phone via a secure online link, instead of through a headset.  

Meanwhile, VR is not always the best option when working with vulnerable children. He says: 

The deep, systemic problems which affect the lives of young people in care do not have simple, technical fixes.

Next steps

The Children’s Society is considering curating existing VR content to learn about and facilitate emotion regulation. Groves explains: 

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 in session after doing some fun activities in VR, helping him to channel his energy, and then relaxing using a VR mindfulness app to calm down.

This is something we are hoping to explore further in the future.