Virtual Reality Helps Beat Paranoia

research in the news‘Paranoia’. It’s one of those words that retain their stigma despite all the good work of campaigns such as Time to Change. A reason for this might be the way that the word is used so much in everyday life.  The term your paranoid can be used as a response to so many statements. “I think that [insert details of situation]’… to which the reply comes “you’re paranoid!”

In a mental health context paranoia is one of the more damaging labels that you can have. It can create a catch-22 situation where anything you say is treated with great suspicion as ‘you’re paranoid’. Recent research shows that paranoia is pretty common. A 2011 study shows that 18.6% of the general population report that ‘people were against them’ with “1.8% reporting potential plots to cause them serious harm”.

For a great overview of paranoia and how it is treated please visit:

To further complicate matters, helping people with severe paranoia is quite difficult. Paranoid thinking tends to be quite hard to alter. Talking treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), medication, and other approaches such as mindfulness have all been used with varying degrees of success.

The McPin Foundation has recently started to provide service user input into a programme of research on paranoia called the Feeling Safe study. The study itself is a trial of a version of CBT that has been tailored specifically for people with ‘paranoid persecutory delusions’. The preliminary results are encouraging.   A ‘paranoid persecutory delusion’ is a strongly held and false belief that someone or something is going to harm you.  The research is being led by Daniel Freeman at Oxford University. The McPin Foundation runs a group of five people with lived experience of paranoia that are advising this programme of research. We will additionally be carrying out an evaluation of the Feeling Safe intervention led by a service user researcher.

On May 5th an article appeared on the BBC news website about a new experimental approach for treating paranoid persecutory delusions using virtual reality. I was delighted to see the article featured a video of one of our advisers trying out the approach together with Daniel Freeman and Felicity White from the research team.

One of the scenarios used in the virtual reality approach is being inside an underground tube train. Several computer generated figures move about inside the carriage occasionally moving towards you and making eye contact.

Thirty people who experienced paranoid persecutory delusions were divided into two groups of equal size. Fifteen people were asked to act as they normally would in the computer generated tube train. The other fifteen were asked to make eye contact and stay where they were when the virtual ‘passengers’ came near them. In other words this group were asked to confront what they might feel to be an uncomfortable and threatening situation. The results are encouraging with people in the ‘confront’ group reporting significantly lower levels of distress and of being threatened than those who are asked to behave normally.

The research was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.  The Mental Elf produced a review of the research the day after the BBC article appeared.

I was pleased about this research for so many reasons. First and foremost the approach seems to work. Secondly, the use of virtual reality technology. This is innovative. Thirdly, the research got a lot of attention in the press. The video in the BBC article was at one point the most viewed video on the BBC News website. The American newsmagazine Newsweek and many of the major UK newspapers produced articles about the study. I hope that this press coverage may do something to address the stigma that still surrounds paranoia.

And finally it was very pleasing to see someone with lived experience of paranoia being featured very prominently in the BBC article and video. His voice and those of the other four members of our advisory group will continue to shape and influence further research into paranoia for years to come.