Virtual Reality thesis improves psychosis empathy for psychology students

Posted by Virginia on 15 August 2017

A joint project by Navitas colleges ACAP and SAE could lead the way for more VR teaching in allied health and community support.

A dramatic simulation has put psychology students in the virtual shoes of a person experiencing psychosis symptoms, thanks to a collaboration between the Australian College of Applied Psychology (ACAP) and SAE Institute Australia.

ACAP student, Nick Formosa, wanted to find a way for psychology students to empathise effectively with psychosis symptoms for his Master of Psychology (Clinical) thesis. His research posed the question: Could we safely replicate the experience of a psychotic episode to be virtually lived by a student working in domains relating to mental health?

Risk-free immersion

Participants in Nick’s study were surveyed about their understanding of psychosis before and after engaging in a virtual reality simulation, with the aim of measuring change in empathy and understanding, following a self-guided immersive experience. The results of Nick’s findings were published in the Australian Journal of Psychology in June.

Psychosis was the condition chosen for replication in the simulation, for its requirement of a considerable practitioner skillset typically treated in a one-on-one clinical environment.

“The catalyst for the simulation project came when I started my clinical masters thesis,” said Nick. 

“A core component of the project needs clinical research built in, and the second component requires engagement with clients who have various mental health needs. The first time you are engaging with a client the biggest challenge is to be able to truly understand the fundamental experience of another person. You need to be able to intervene effectively and to develop clinical rapport.”

Gaming-inspired teaching

Virtual Reality was the bridge from theoretical knowledge to client empathy for Nick’s study participants.

VR story animation pic 2The simulation they viewed - and controlled through VR goggles – depicted an everyday domestic scene of entering a typical home and moving about its interior from the perspective of a person experiencing psychosis. Infused in the self-led ‘tour’ of the house were distorted visual and audio effects reflecting the experiences of a psychosis sufferer. 



VR story animation pic 5Nick’s personal interest in serious video games was behind the VR solution. With thesis supervisor Dr Ben Morrison, the pair combined the forces of clinical psychology and teaching design expertise with the 3D animation and programming skills of SAE lecturer Geoffrey Hill and SAE associate, Daniel Stone of Daniel Stone Media.

“The idea of taking a serious game approach and transplanting it into psychology training solves the age-old problem of safely exposing students to the client when it will be most beneficial to their development,” said Ben.

“Rather than waiting until the latter stages of a professional psychology program, a virtual reality simulation gives students early exposure to high-stakes, high-risk client environments.”

Joint project between Navitas colleges 

Before the technical work could begin, Nick and Ben invested significant effort in to building and scripting the VR characters’ voices, to ensure high accuracy in the hallucinations replicated in the demonstration.

“The key to authentic scripting was a strong theoretical and practical base. We referred to a lot of psychosis case studies before engaging SAE to build the simulation,” said Ben.

Once the clinical approach was determined, SAE lecturer Geoffrey Hill and SAE associate, Daniel Stone of Daniel Stone Media, started on programming and animation.

For SAE, the rapid advances in VR technology meant part of the job was to ensure the final product would remain compatible with future VR hardware. 

“When this work was being created VR was still quite early in its current phase and there have been many advances since then,” said Geoffrey.

“For example, when we built the simulation, motion control wasn’t available in any sense. We were still using development kits, rather than full commercial releases. So there’s a lot of technical stuff which has already moved forward, which is very exciting.”

Future teaching applications

The success of ‘The Psychosis Experience’ has paved the way for future applications of VR in teaching at ACAP and in the wider profession itself, with the potential for more cross-college collaboration on the technical production side.

“This is a starting point we can expand on in the classroom,” said Ben.

“Particularly looking at the soft skills of empathy, we could replicate this study in a range of domains, such as nursing or policing. There’s a lot of room for growth in learning through virtual reality, which we’re excited about.”

Watch the presentation

Find out more about the ACAP-SAE virtual reality collaboration here. Or read the abstract of the team’s original article, Testing the efficacy of a virtual reality-based simulation in enhancing users’ knowledge, attitudes, and empathy relating to psychosis.