Virtual Reality And Immersive Tech: The Great Health And Social Policy Revolution?

Social care is, by definition, how society supports the welfare of others – the young, old and vulnerable in our society who rely on this support to keep them safe and able to manage daily life. Often intertwined with mental health services, it largely relies on the deployment of carefully trained, professionals – social workers and family workers – and the allied health workforce of clinical psychologists, psychotherapists, drug and alcohol workers etc.

But, as per the headlines, social care is bursting at the seams and unable to properly meet demand. In children’s social care the numbers of children coming into care are at an all time high and growing with a majority of local authorities providing an unsatisfactory service (as judged by Ofsted, but also a simple review of the disproportionately poor outcomes for children in care reveals the shameful performance of our “corporate parenting” of these children).

And the budget-busting challenges of a rapidly growing adult social care sector has been the subject of fervent debate but with no workable resolution in sight.

So, as with other sectors such as finance and entertainment, can the mental health and social policy sectors stand to benefit from what some claim is the 4th industrial revolution?

Arguably, these sectors are ones that stand to gain more than others because the fundamental features of VR and immersive tech are social facilitatory in nature…VR is often described as an “empathy machine” which comes from the ability to put on a pair of goggles and disappear into someone else’s shoes… this ability to perspective-take is a crucial element and goal of many social and mental health interventions.

And that means it has enormous potential ranging from training of social workers, teachers, health professionals and carers, to the treatment of eating disorders and anxiety disorders as well as addressing major trends in crime such as gang crime, hate crime and radicalisation.

In my own sector of children’s social care, it means we can help those families who are either adopting, fostering or on the edge of care to fully understand the impact of trauma and abuse on children and how that translates to a child’s challenging behaviour at home or school.
Putting adults into the child’s shoes, albeit virtually, allows us to generate empathy and deep understanding which becomes engrained in our memory to the extent that we fundamentally alter our views and with that comes behaviour change.

Accelerating behaviour change in this way means we have a chance to strengthen the bonds between children and carers enabling them to withstand the challenges that go with adoption or fostering, and crucially, to enable our children to recover from whatever trauma, abuse or neglect led them to be in the care system in the first place. And ultimately to fulfil their potential in life.

The ability to cast into the future and generate foresight is another important feature of immersive technology which has huge application – how many would-be suicide bombers might think twice about making the long hard trek to the middle East if they had the benefit of hindsight… if they had experienced the extreme fear of putting their own lives on the line and the personal responsibility of destroying so many other human lives, would they still take that step? The two teenagers in London who were recently sentenced for a gang stabbing of an innocent bystander ended up weeping for their mums in the dock… if we could project these children into those moments of deep and sincere regret surely our chances of rehabilitating are far greater than any traditional methodologies.

And further, the more subtle societal and cultural challenges that come from a failure to equate what we do today with consequences in the future are challenges that this technology could help to overcome. Tackling climate change and our collective lack of empathy for the elderly are two such cases in point where our inability to consider our own ageing or connect our environmental actions today with the type of world our grandchildren might inherit in the not too distant future are the underlying dysfunctions that lend themselves so well to the power of VR.

So how do we get to the point where the benefits of this technology are realised? Social innovators like Cornerstone are the agitators seeking to disrupt their sectors and create major transformation that will deliver a stepped changes in outcomes. The skill of spotting where and how this technology can be applied, then having the entrepreneurial gumption to lift these ideas from paper and bring them to life as pilot projects is something we pride ourselves in.

We have the ambition, drive and willingness to make changes happen by seeking out, testing and refining the best of what the tech world has to offer. And once the concept is proven, cost benefit evidenced and teething problems ironed out then scaling and evolving these early innovations will rapidly follow.

By that time though we’ll be scouring the globe for the 5th industrial revolution and harvesting the very best from our new techie BFFs so that social policy can mirror the entertainment industry in making equally big transformational leaps forward.

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