By Page L. Anderson, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Georgia State University
As a researcher, my primary interest is developing and testing treatments that will be acceptable and accessible for the people who need them. I started as a part of a team to test virtual reality as a form of exposure therapy, which involves facing one’s fears in a therapeutic way. Exposure therapy is highly effective, but can be intimating. We wondered if facing one’s fears in a virtual world could lead to facing fears in the real world. If so, maybe more people would receive the treatment they need. We found that virtual reality can effectively treat specific phobias, like heights and flying. But I wanted to tackle a problem that would challenge the technology and that has a significant impact on public health. Social Anxiety Disorder is highly prevalent, underdiagnosed, and vastly undertreated. It affects so many important domains of life – relationships, education, and access to meaningful work. It was the perfect next step.
I conducted a randomized clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health and found that virtual reality could indeed treat social anxiety. I wanted to keep pushing the envelope of technology as a vehicle for exposure therapy to increase access to treatment, so I started exploring an Internet-based form of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which would allow suffers to get help without necessarily having to see a therapist in person (which can be hard for a person who is socially anxious) nor require the specialized equipment needed for virtual reality.
Much of the early work on this was done in Australia, where geography can often divide therapists and their patients. I visited the group who has treated the most people with social anxiety using internet CBT to learn from their experience with the hopes of implementing it in the US.
I am grateful to the Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety for a grant to do so. We are developing Internet CBT to treat college students with social anxiety disorder. One major innovation with our program is incorporating virtual reality for exposure therapy, which existing programs do not do. We are also building an internet-based clinic to support students who use the program – the first in the US, to my knowledge.
Like the Kukes family, my family was touched by suicide. I have been searching for a way to use my professional expertise to prevent something awful from happening to other families. When I read the story of Andy Kukes and the Foundation’s grant request, I felt like it was speaking directly to me. I am honored to have been selected and to have a concrete opportunity to help.
Our internet CBT program is in the early developmental stages, but we expect to have something available for research participants in the fall of 2016, first with students at Georgia State.
I feel confident that internet CBT can help US college students with social anxiety disorder. The research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy is highly effective, and my own work with virtual reality shows that exposure therapy in particular is very robust. As a scientist, however, I must wait for the data. I’m very optimistic about it and look forward to updating you on it in the coming years.