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Designing a virtual reality therapy for OCD

What is this research?

People experiencing obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) struggle with obsessive and persistent thoughts. This leads them to perform compulsions to relieve the anxious feelings associated with these thoughts. One of the more common forms of OCD involves carrying out physical compulsions related to repeated actions. In other words, repeatedly checking that a door has been locked correctly, or repeating an action until it ‘feels right’ (such as turning a switch on and off), or repeating an action in order to prevent harm to yourself or others. For example, repeatedly checking or moving an object a specific number of times because any other number feels unsafe.

Breaking free from these compulsions can be very difficult for people experiencing OCD. The compulsions keep the OCD cycle going because they tend to reinforce the obsessive thoughts and feelings. As well as this, performing compulsions can be very time-consuming and can prevent people from doing the things that they want to do. It can lead to great distress and avoidance of many activities.

One possible way to help people with OCD may be technologies, such as virtual reality (VR). It could be used as a form of therapy to help gently expose people with OCD to their fears and worries, and help them to reduce compulsions. VR therapy involves wearing a headset and exploring a computer-generated environment. A virtual coach will guide users through their thoughts, feelings and responses in situations that people with repeated action OCD find difficult.

To explore the possibility of using VR to help people with OCD, the McPin Foundation are working with Oxford VR to design an approach that is suitable, effective and appropriate for people with these experiences. This project aims to develop the therapy to the point that its effectiveness can be tested in a research study.

Why is this research important?

Currently people with OCD will be referred to IAPT services for psychological therapy. But it is not clear if IAPT services fully meet the needs of people with OCD. Having VR therapy could mean that therapy is more accessible and people acquire the skills they need as early as possible. As well as this, VR offers the chance for people to try reducing their compulsions in a safe environment. Having tested out their fears, the tools that they acquire in the virtual reality world could then be applied to reality.

How are McPin and people with OCD involved in this research?

The McPin Foundation are facilitating the service user involvement for this study in the form of user-development workshops and a Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP). McPin will ensure that people with lived experience of OCD have their voices heard during the VR design process, as well as supporting them to advise and shape the rest of the project. Some of the McPin staff who are supporting this project will draw from their own experiences of OCD to offer input and expertise.

What is the current status of the project? 

Recruitment for the user development workshops and the Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP) is now open! Read more about the opportunity by clicking here or download the application form below. We are especially looking for people in the London and Oxford regions.

Applications close on Friday 10 May, 5pm

Where can I find more information?

You can learn about Oxford VR by clicking here. If you are thinking about applying, check out our FAQs including what to expect from LEAP meetings.

For further queries about service user involvement, please contact Rachel Temple by email: racheltemple@mcpin.org or by phone: 0207 922 7874.