Schizophrenia patients are benefiting from “avatar therapy” which gives a face to their auditory hallucinations

Psychiatric medicine is attempting to understand mental illnesses by giving form to the many phantoms that plague millions of patients globally. This moves away from traditional psychiatry which assumes that mental health was something that could only be “cured” either through medicine or long, sometimes tedious, psychiatric sessions. In an attempt to treat patients better and lessen the duration of acute symptoms of various mental illnesses, a team from King’s College London conducted an experimental therapy on schizophrenic patients. This new strategy, called avatar therapy, involves schizophrenics having a face-to-face discussion with an avatar that represents their auditory hallucinations.

Threatening, auditory hallucinations are symptoms of schizophrenia. Around 60 to 70 percent of patients with the illness report experiencing these hallucinations. These voices (which may or may not sound like the patient’s own voice) generate too much “noise” in one’s head, causing many schizophrenic patients to be distracted, angry, or irritated. There have also been cases of schizophrenic patients attempting suicide because of these voices. Treatment for this symptom was lackluster at best, with many patients claiming that their auditory hallucinations persist even with prescription medicine.

This new study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, concluded that avatar therapy may provide relief, when provided alongside usual treatment. Authors of the randomized blind study said that avatar therapy reduced hallucinations after 12 weeks and had a more impactful effect on alleviating other symptoms of schizophrenia.

“Our study provides early evidence that avatar therapy rapidly improves auditory hallucinations for people with schizophrenia, reducing their frequency and how distressing they are, compared to a type of counseling,” said lead author Professor Tom Craig. “So far, these improvements appear to last for up to six months for these patients. However, these results come from one treatment centre and more research is needed to optimise the way the treatment is delivered and demonstrate that it is effective in other NHS (National Health Service) settings.”

As the name suggests, avatar therapy involves patients confronting their fears head-on. The therapy benefits the patients by providing a form to their fears, which suddenly become less scary. Providing substance to tendrils of imagination, the researchers say, helps schizophrenics heal. Talking to these avatars — which the patients make themselves — also shifts control from the avatar to the patient; thus, it is the patient now “in control.” (Related: Talk to the voices: Unconventional yet obvious ways to heal schizophrenia and average mental mayhem.)

It was concluded that supplemental avatar therapy dramatically improved the prognosis of recovery among schizophrenics. Hallucinations became less frequent and distressing after 12 weeks, with the improvements being sustained even after 24 weeks.

The researchers did note, however, that avatar therapy is not viable as a mass treatment (as of yet) for schizophrenics because it requires highly trained mental health professionals to conduct these sessions. Current data show that the mental health workforce cannot yet handle it.

Acknowledging mental illness as a disease

Mental health is often difficult to understand because its symptoms (unless acute) are often unseen by the public. This influenced past thinking which believed mental disorders were illnesses that could be easily fixed. Nevertheless, scientists are discovering that mental illnesses have a biological component to them as well — often seen in abnormalities in the brain. Detecting the signs early can mean better treatment for these patients.

In terms of schizophrenia, a virtual reality game may help detect minor impairments in the brain that could develop into a mental condition. Using the latest in neuroimaging, a EU-funded ALTEREGO project developed a “mirror game” that used artificial intelligence to diagnose and monitor schizophrenia.

The game is still in its early iterations but the team is optimistic that their project could play a crucial role in diagnosing and treating schizophrenia.

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