Using Virtual Reality to Promote Better Maternal Mental Health

It’s a “technology to the rescue” story. After years of trying different strategies to turn around some dismal maternal mortality rates — especially among minority, underserved communities — researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine are studying the potential of virtual reality (VR) to help reduce one of the main drivers.

Headshot of Dr. Azizi Seixas
Azizi Seixas, Ph.D.

“Maternal mental health, particularly among racial ethnic minorities, is abysmal as compared to their white counterparts,” said Azizi Seixas, Ph.D., interim chair of the Department of Informatics and Health Data Science and associate director of the Center for Translational Sleep and Circadian Sciences. “And when we peel away the layers and try to understand there are so many significant maternal health disparities, we saw that mental health was a key component.”

The Nurturing Moms study will provide headsets preloaded with VR videos to women currently pregnant and others who have given birth in the previous 12 months. Effectiveness will be measured after each VR session and following completion of the yearlong study to gauge the technology’s short- and long-term impact on maternal mental health.

Using VR to Access Mental Health Care

The VR videos are designed as an immersive experience that is part education, part mindfulness. The technology is available through on an existing partnership between the Media and Innovation Lab and BehaVR, a VR company based in Nashville. “The Miller School of Medicine is one of the leaders in this space,” Dr. Seixas said.

NurtureVR logo
NurtureVR logo

“Many people relegate virtual reality or immersive technologies to just the world of gaming,” he said. However, evidence now supports VR for helping people mitigate mental health and psychophysical factors including pain and addiction.

VR also is a potential solution where women can access standardized mental health care at any time or place, without barriers, Dr. Seixas said. The headsets will be provided free of charge to study participants.

Headshot of Dr. Judite Blanc
Judite Blanc, Ph.D.

“Pregnancy is a stressful and sometimes even traumatic experience for us,” said study principal co-author Judite Blanc, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Miller School. “By wearing the headset, you completely remove the outside world and its stress. You go to another world where everything is beautiful. You’ll see nature while you’re listening to a beautiful voice.”

The VR immersive experience provides education and supports mindfulness better than a smartphone app, Dr. Blanc said, based on her experience using the technology.

While the goal of the Nurturing Moms project is to support women during and after pregnancy, “you’re not just doing it for them,” Dr. Blanc said. “You’re also doing it for healthier families, and so we have a better world with healthier human beings in the future.”

Moving forward, the researchers would like to leverage this pilot data to develop a bigger study, Dr. Blanc said. “We have to address the public health emergency. What’s happening at the public health level is not sustainable. We have Black women and women of color dying.”

Tags: Center for Translational Sleep and Circadian Sciences, Department of Informatics and Health Data Science, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Dr. Azizi Seixas, Dr. Judite Blanc, virtual reality, VR