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Brisbane to Get New Virtual Room For Suicide Prevention

Researchers from the Black Dog Institute and UNSW are using an innovation grant for performing and investigation into mixed reality experiences for enhancing the moods of people and minimising suicidal feelings. The grant, offered by the Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA), will enable the display of the experience in Brisbane. It will be tested as a tool for suicide prevention in association with Metro South Health.

The project for setting up the VR experience is known as The Edge of the Present. It was developed for The Big Anxiety event at the 2019 edition of UNSW. It was spearheaded by Jill Bennett, Scientia Professor from UNSW Art & Design, and Black Dog Institute Professor Katherine Boydell. The project was developed in collaboration with people who have had their bouts with suicidal tendencies and depression.

The immersive experience runs for ten minutes and has been designed by UNSW Art & Design artist Dr. Alex Davies. It delves into the virtual landscapes within a designated space. It helps users get the experience of visiting a tropical rainforest environment, and are taken to the environs of a snowy mountain or a barren desert next.

Testing The Edge of the Present with a VR device. Image source: unsw

Professor Bennett, a UNSW ARC Laureate Fellow, said that the research is the very first one to evaluate the potential of immersive MR experience in the form of an intervention method for individuals suffering from lack of hope and depression. It works by dynamically enhancing positive mood and encouraging positive thinking for the future. The objective of the research is to solidify if the immersive virtual reality experience can have any effect on the moods of individuals, and determine how it can be utilised for enhancing future thinking capacity and improving the ability to be positive.

According to Professor Bennett, the experience is a passive offering but giving users the options to open windows and doors. He said that every choice made by the users are responded to with positive sensations. He highlights an example scenario of a user within the experience, with a user opening a door and feeling the wind, or experiencing the warmth of the sunlight in a meadow.

Professor Boydell was the leader of the study performed during The Big Anxiety event of 2019. The NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention of the Black Dog Institute funded the study which had 79 individuals. Many of these people had experiences of suicidality and depression. The study evaluated the moods of people right before and after the VR experience. According to Boydell, the pilot study produced data that showed the experience has the ability to instantly change the mood.

Boydell stated that the study showcased how well-being and the positive mood grew considerably after the intervention sessions. She said that hopelessness went down along with negative mood symptoms. According to her, the next goal is reproducing the study on a grander scale across Brisbane, but outside the environs of a health facility. The installation may be exhibited at The Big Anxiety festival in the city this year.

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