A virtual peek into the future of mental health support

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A virtual peak into the future of mental health support

Mental health is under the spotlight, with many campaigns running to raise awareness. 

Thames Water is at the forefront of the drive to help people who are experiencing mental health issues, and constantly seeking new ways of offering the crucial support.

Now, using state-of-the-art virtual reality technology, the water company is training its managers in how to spot signs of depression and anxiety, and how best to approach people to offer them support.

Carol Moore, who leads the training team, said: “We’re always trying to push the boundaries of how we train people and had been looking for some time at how we can really immerse people in what they are learning – using virtual reality is a great way of getting the message across.

“Using VR makes the learning deeply personal – you really feel and experience what people go through – and then see how colleagues are acting in the right way to listen to him and give him the help he needs.”

As part of the course, the trainee wears virtual reality goggles and becomes ‘Dennis’ – a father of two with a stressful and demanding job, who’s also experiencing a difficult time at home.

It’s all getting on top of him and he’s finding it difficult to function at work – or even to get out of the car and go into the building.

But none of this is obvious to his manager or team-mates. Dennis isn’t real. He’s a fictional character, but his plight is all too real.

As part of the training, attendees are also shown clips, through the eyes of Dennis, of him being offered support in the workplace, and how best to sensitively talk to people who may be experiencing difficulties.

The VR training has been introduced as part of Thames Water’s mental health awareness programme, and has been developed by the company’s technology experts.

The course is designed to equip specialists within teams with the skills to spot where people are having episodes of depression or stress at work, have supportive conversations with them and point them in the right direction for help and support.

Ginika Okoye, who has taken part in the training, said: “Virtual reality is a very useful tool. People don’t always really understand these sorts of issues when they are simply explained – this enables you to experience and understand what the person is going through first-hand and become more empathetic.

“It also makes learning a lot more fun.”