Virtual reality‑based training for mental health staff: a novel approach to increase empathy, compassion, and subjective understanding of service user experience

Simon Riches*, Hannah Iannelli, Lisa Reynolds, Helen Fisher, Sean Cross, Chris Attoe

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Mental health service users report that staff empathy is key to developing positive therapeutic relationships but promoting empathy in staff training is challenging. Staff may struggle to maintain their compassion, particularly in challenging settings, and have limited clinical confidence when treating conditions of which they lack subjective understanding. Novel interventions are required to address these needs.

Main body of the text: Virtual reality-based simulation training has been shown to be an effective training modality for healthcare professionals; it has the potential to deliver crucial empathy-building learning for frontline mental health staff due to its capacity to increase staff understanding of service users’ experiences. Virtual reality and simulation technology take interactivity and experiential learning to a level beyond which we have seen in teaching and training before. Subjective understanding is elicited because this is a technology for enhanced experiential learning, which in turn fosters greater empathy and compassion. Increased empathy in the workforce is likely to yield significant benefits for service users. Greater empathy in nursing is linked with reduced restrictive practices and reduced conflict between staff and service users. Restrictive practices, including restraint and seclusion, are widely used in mental health settings within the UK, and are an aspect of mental health nursing that is at odds with the therapeutic role of nursing. Despite these innovative developments, there are challenges ahead. Many nurses feel that complete eradication of restrictive practices is impossible and that barriers include a limitation of resources, communication, management, and lack of education. There is a need to make simulation training economically viable so that it can be upscaled and widely available. Therefore, greater investment and resources are needed to bring this innovative training to the wider workforce to support staff and to realise the benefits for service users.

Short conclusion: Virtual reality-based training has great potential for mental health staff, which could have important consequences in terms of improved staff empathy and reductions in harmful restrictive practices. Further research and funding for such training is necessary so that it can be more widely available.
Original languageEnglish
Article number7 (19)
JournalAdvances in Simulation
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jul 2022


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