Sweet birdsong floats softly by as a gentle wave of cool air tickles your face. Escaping reality has never been easy, but this beautiful winter wonderland, enveloping you in a comforting hug, provides the mind and soul with much-needed respite.
As you hesitantly close the door on this magical vista, you will find yourself eager to discover what is next on this unique globe-trotting journey.
Another turn of the door handle and you’re in the belly of a tropical jungle. Oversized green leaves form a canopy above and you spy the blue sky peeking through the thick vegetation.
Psychological studies regularly highlight the powerful effect the natural environment has on the mind. The ‘biophilia hypothesis’ centres on the observation that a connection with the planet’s natural state – the sound of running water, the sensation of earth underfoot – assists in stress reduction, and improves mental wellbeing overall.
To free the mind of burden simply by stepping through a door is the ultimate gift for people living with depression, anxiety, sensory overload or autism.
Welcome to the Edge of the Present – a virtual reality (VR) environment for mental heath that is being rolled out in community regions in a world-first initiative. Its first stop is right here on the Sunshine Coast.
Edge of the Present (EOTP), is an innovative and powerful non-therapeutic tool designed as a 10-minute experience, where users are invited to explore multiple spectacular landscapes using mixed-reality software, with the aim of improving mood, wellbeing and positive future thinking.
Through these embodied virtual explorations, the user learns that openness and curiosity lead to positively reinforcing experiences which can enrich their internal space. The installation project, funded by the Suicide Prevention Research Fund, was developed for The Big Anxiety Festival in 2019 and created by University of New South Wales Scientia Professor Jill Bennett and supported by Professor Katherine Boydell from the Black Dog Institute.
“This research is the first to assess the effectiveness of such an immersive mixed-reality experience as an intervention for depression and hopelessness. It does so by rapidly increasing positive mood and stimulating positive future thinking,” Prof Bennett says. The experience aims to cultivate the capacity for future thinking by encouraging positive actions that are rewarded in an instant feedback loop.
“The experience is not just a passive one but involves the user making choices to open doors and windows… each choice is rewarded by positive sensation. So, for example, you open a door and feel the breeze on your face, or step out into the warmth of a sun-baked meadow.
“On the one hand it’s relentlessly positive. There are all these beautiful scenes, it’s impossible not to like. But on the other hand, it’s important that the user has agency and that this very positive sensation, and this amazingly beautiful resplendent scene, is coming as a result of your direct action.”
The EOTP VR equipment is available until the end of September free of charge to the community thanks to local not-for-profit mental health organisation Youturn.
The Youturn team works with young people cross a range of issues including child safety, suicide prevention and homelessness.
Youturn CEO Dr Tanya Bell says the program presents an innovative solution to help support young people.
“Young people are less likely than any other age group to seek professional help,” Dr Bell says. “At times young people struggle with traditional talk therapy methods in a typical clinical environment.
“Sitting face to face with a stranger in a small room to discuss deeply emotional and personal issues can be confronting and difficult and as a result young people are less likely than any other age group to seek professional help.
“Many young men in particular are dissuaded to seek help, but we believe that the EOTP has enormous potential for those who are typically comfortable with technology and gaming.”
Funding EOTP for three months was a no brainer, adds Youturn spokeswoman Antoinette Lloyd. “We run five headspace centres across the southeast and there is so much demand. We seek innovative ways to support… and complement what we offer at headspace.
“As a mother, I know that people are hesitant when it comes to children using technology too much. The reality is our young people are comfortable with it and this can help them by displaying these beautiful scenes that encourage them to go out and explore.
“I witnessed two teen boys living with autism who came through and used the VR. One of the boys had high sensory issues. Within 30 seconds of starting the VR, his whole body relaxed. Until then, I myself hadn’t appreciated how quickly it could work. It provides an innovative solution for young people while they wait for therapy appointments.”
The nation’s 2021 census revealed one-third of Australians have a diagnosed long-term health condition, with mental health issues surpassing every other chronic illness.
As revealed recently by Sunshine Coast News, during the 12 months between January 2021 and January 2022, almost 8000 people presented to the Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service in relation to mental health concerns.
Of these, almost 1100 (which equates to 91 people per month) were aged 18 years and under. In addition, 200 young people a month were being referred to the Mental Health Department, according to Wishlist Sunshine Coast Hospital Foundation.
Peak mental health body Beyond Blue reports that half of all mental health conditions experienced start by age 14. More than 75 per cent of these conditions occur before the age of 25.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians between the ages of 15 and 44 and statistics from the Australian Psychological Society (APS) show that one in four young Australians thought about suicide over the past two years.
A survey from the APS shows that one in three psychologists have been forced to close their books to new patients due to the overwhelming demand. Three in four have a waiting list, and clients are waiting between three to six months for an appointment.
Before the pandemic, only one in 100 psychologists were not taking new clients, according to the APS.
“Around Australia, including the Sunshine Coast, people are experiencing substantial difficulties in accessing timely mental health care with demand growing and waiting lists expanding,” Dr Bell says.
“The challenges that today’s generation of young people face are unprecedented and uniquely hard to navigate. And the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating.
“We have noticed a significant increase in demand for mental health support services with young people reporting feeling anxious, unsupported or disconnected with feelings of isolation.
“The rental crisis on the Sunshine Coast has been another major impact on the mental health of young people, who report heightened anxiety about living arrangements, loss of work/shifts and the uncertainty around travel and seeing family.”
“Early intervention and prioritising access to appropriate mental health support and programs is key. The sooner that people take action to get support for their mental health, the more likely it is to be effective.”
The Youturn team is fundraising for additional tools and solutions to help alleviate the demand. One of these solutions will be the construction of permanent VR rooms at the organisation’s five headspace centres.
“We have earmarked $80,000 to do the rooms,” Youturn’s Antoinette Lloyd says. “Instead of the headsets, participants will use the VR glasses.
“The next version should be coming out in February and we are working with them to have that available.”
If you, or someone you know, is in need of support, don’t hesitate to contact these organisations.
In an emergency, dial 000.
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800
Headspace: 1800 650 890
Suicide Callback Service: 1300 659 467
To help: Youturn’s mental health programs include five busy headspace centres across southeast Queensland, which provide early intervention services to people between 12 and 25 years. To support its work, and to help make VR a permanent reality, visit youturn.org.au/how-you-can-help.
To participate: The Edge of the Present experience is free of charge and available for people of any age. To book your session, visit youturn.org.au/i-see-a-brighter -future.
MENTAL HEALTH: The reality
One in six Australians have experienced suicidal thoughts or behaviours in their lifetime and more than two in five have had a mental health disorder.
These findings are part of a comprehensive study undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Australians aged 16 to 85 were surveyed and for the first time, the research gathered data from people on their lived experiences with suicide, self harm and binge eating.
It found almost two in five had been close to someone who had died by or attempted suicide.
In 2020/21, one in five people experienced a mental health disorder, with anxiety most common.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health Ruth Vine says the survey will hopefully help show people they are not alone and can seek help.
“It reinforces that … many of us will know a person who has struggled and who has recovered and even grown in some ways through that experience,” she says.
The study found nearly 40 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds experienced mental ill-health in 2020/21.
The National Mental Health Commission says the findings are deeply worrying and the data highlights areas that require immediate action and improvement – AAP