People with a substance abuse problem find it hard to get out of the dangerous cycle of abstinence and relapse. 

There are many different therapies available through treatment centers, including medication-assisted treatment (MAT), standard cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and holistic practices (meditation, movement, art therapy, nutrition, physical exercise) to kick the deadly habit, but none work for every patient. New therapies are needed.

Enter augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology. Their potential is no longer limited to just games but has become a valuable tool for virtually all aspects of our lives, including healthcare, aviation, manufacturing, real estate, and other industries. 

The whole concept of applying this technology to improving mental health was pioneered by Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, whose work has been a breakthrough for PTSD sufferers. Earlier it was used to conquer phobias as a virtual form of exposure therapy. 

Many studies about the potential of AR/VR to measure cravings for alcohol, drugs, and other addictive substances, to help people manage them, and to prevent relapse have been published. They operate on “virtual reality cue reactivity” which forces a reaction from the patient and bring the problem to the surface.

The idea is to place patients in situations where they are forced to confront the source of their issue and learn to cope with it. These virtual practices have been put into actual practice in clinical settings. 

Researchers in Houston, for example, think that augmented reality has the potential to revolutionize addiction treatment. According to them, the traditional method of role-playing is not as effective because patients are consciously aware that they are inside the therapist’s office.

With VR/AR, you can put the client inside a drug den or bar, for example, where they see people taking drugs or drinking beer in front of them. This provokes a craving that they use coping strategies to resist

China was the first to utilize the technology in its rehab treatment center in Hangzhou. According to the state media, Xinhua, the initial results showed a 75% reduction in cravings. The problem, however, is that there’s no way to know the actual results because the country is a closed society. 

The uses of AR/VR in healthcare, particularly in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction, hold so much promise that it’s a wonder why it’s still not taking off. The potential to rake in revenues is there. The drug rehab treatment center industry is worth $35 billion, after all. Smartphone compatible VR headsets are available for only a couple of hundred dollars, making them very affordable for drug and alcohol treatment centers.

However, there’s a reason to be optimistic. App designers and programmers keep trying to come up with better and less expensive alternatives that will be accessible to everybody. 

Interventionville, conceptualized by Dr. Matthew Prekupec, tries to put alcohol and drug dependents in an immersive environment that will help them confront their cravings. Kickstarter launched in 2018 raised less than a fifth of its funding goal, however.

Need spurs invention, and success always breeds copycats. If Interventionville or a similar product proves to be effective, it could be a game-changer in the drug and alcohol rehab industry.