The Sowenna Unit, the first Mental Health Centre for under eighteens in Cornwall, is set to adopt Virtual Reality therapy. Based in Bodmin and due to open this September, the 14-bed unit is hoping to relieve many of the issues faced by those struggling with mental health within the countryside. Virtual Reality (VR) is one new and exciting way of doing so.

VR technology, invented in 1968 by two American computer scientists, has in recent years received heavy investment meaning that a diverse range of fields, from Art to Medicine, have begun to explore its possibilities and benefits.  

Recent award-winning research, led by Professor Daniel Freeman and his team at the University of Oxford, have looked into the introduction of Virtual Reality within the NHS’s treatment for mental health.

Whilst his work specialises in the treatment of psychosis, Freeman’s research has revealed the broader potential of VR. Freeman states that because, the treatment is automated’ it is a ‘low-cost, yet effective complement to existing care’. This could be the answer to the crisis in mental health provision. When the number of individuals suffering with their mental health is increasing and the amount of resources given to the treatment of mental health is decreasing, VR can complement traditional therapy by offering support to those waiting for appointments. This quick intervention is key in ensuring that mental health does not deteriorate when the next appointment could be months or even years away.

The experience of Virtual Reality itself is said to engage younger participants. Dr Liz Myers, CFT’s Consultant on Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists and Clinical Director of Children’s Services states that “The purpose is to use the sensory environments to help young people tackle their mental health issues in a more effective way than ever before. By creating the VR sensory environments, patients are able to experience more calming surroundings to help them deal with the issues that they face. We would expect patient’s heart rates and anxiety levels to be lowered at a faster rate than the traditional time spent in a static sensory environment”.

The Sowenna Unit will offer VR therapy alongside a traditional programme of counselling. The Virtual Environments will be designed by locals, Triangular Pixels of Bude (a BAFTA accredited game developer) in consultation with Young People of Cornwall, who will act as a user experience group. As Virtual therapy remains a relatively new treatment, the nearby University of Falmouth will conduct research on its success rate. If effective, and with further research, VR will be implemented in more centres countrywide.

It is significant that Virtual Reality has reached Cornwall so soon. Before the Sowenna Unit, the Cornish mental health care system for young people was non-existent. Individuals were forced to travel across the country to receive treatment. Chloe, at fifteen years old, was admitted to a residential unit in Somerset which was over 100 miles from her home in Cornwall. She was transferred a further six times to units across the UK. In total Chloe’s parents travelled 48,000 miles to visit their daughter, equivalent to twice around the world.

The Cornish community have said that Sowenna being located in Cornwall means I wouldn’t have felt so homesick and would have seen my friends which helps recovery’ and ‘Sowenna means security. It prevents a young person from possible months of isolation, to being in a community they know’.

It seems appropriate that the most exciting developments in Virtual therapy is coming to an area so long devoid of appropriate care for young people. The Sowenna unit is part of the NHS five year forward view that aims to keep treatment local by increasing bed numbers by 10% across the country.

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Virtual Reality therapy is only one element of the Sowenna unit. The unit will also include a sports barn, gym, parental accommodation, café and therapeutic gardens. The Sowenna unit and VR project is being funded by CFT (Cornwall partnership NHS Foundation Trust) and local charities Invictus Trust, The Carew Pole Charitable Trust and VerseOne technologies. Stephanie Pomeroy, the Fundraising Manager of the Sowenna Appeal, explains that ‘we are trying to fundraise for the icing on the cake items that will make this unit really stand out from the others.’

Click here to learn more about the project and how to get involved.

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Laura is in her final year studying History at UCL. She has a real soft spot for animals and loves hearing about the wonderful people who care and look after those most in need. Laura also has a real interest in how charitable individuals are remembered within society as well as how communities come together in times of need.

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