Posted: 16 January 2020

Behind the headset: finding a safe space in virtual reality

Although Virtual Reality (VR) is often seen as something from the future, it’s increasingly being used to change the way we see and interact with the world.  

We piloted the use of VR at one of our mental health drop-in centres in Birmingham. Could it be used to help young people in these services?  

Hypothesis Stage: Can VR be used to help with anxiety? 

Practitioners in Birmingham told us that young people who struggle with anxiety often find it difficult to communicate their anxious feelings. However, to get the right support, young people need to be able to tell practitioners what makes them anxious.  

Could VR be used to find out about the real life scenarios young people struggle with, and can it give them a safe space to practise coping techniques? 

Development Stage: Building challenging situations in VR 

We talked to our practitioners about the coping techniques they teach and asked young people about the challenges they face.  

A poll of over 100 young people found that school environments were the most triggering and the most challenging situations were: 

  • speaking aloud in class 
  • taking exams under pressure, 
  • walking through busy corridors  

We then worked with The Fred Company to shoot the scenarios in 360 with young people, and we developed coping cards to practise relaxation techniques within the VR experience. We also printed physical coping cards so young people could take them to school.  

We trained Pause practitioners to use the VR headsets and tested the product for three months. 

Learning Stage: Can VR be used in a drop-in context? 

After two pilot runs, we came away with a few key learnings. Firstly, it's important not to underestimate the level of training needed for practitioners to feel comfortable enabling the use of VR in their sessions. Secondly, practitioners may be hesitant to use VR in a drop-in context where contact with a young person is brief and there’s little knowledge of their background. Lastly, although weary of using VR for short sessions, practitioners noticed that young people would get excited by its availability and this could enhance communication in sessions.  

The future of VR and supporting young people 

We are currently undertaking two new pilots that will run until May 2020. One of them takes place in Pause again and focuses on making VR accessible for young people with learning difficulties. The other is being developed with the local authority and CCG in Salford to understand how VR might help young people in care. 


By Kaja Zuvac-Graves

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