Virtual reality is being used to reach traumatised families struggling a year after the Grenfell Tower fire in what is believed to be a UK first.
Outreach workers at the Central and North West London NHS trust (CNWL) have been standing amid the market stalls of Portobello Road with VR headsets, hoping to spark conversations with those less likely to proactively seek help.
Offering the chance to ride a roller coaster or wing-walk, teams say the adrenaline from the experience is acting as an icebreaker to help them initiate frank discussions about how north Kensington residents are coping a year on from the fire.
More often than not, those reached have a direct connection with the tower, Grenfell Health and Wellbeing Service manager Ross O’Brien said.
Mr O’Brien said he believed it was the first use of the technology in this way in the NHS in the UK, and has allowed teams to screen “far more people than we would via the traditional methods”.
He said: “Now we’ve built up that relationship, where instead of being scary people in white coats, psychologists, psychotherapists, we’re also just the people who enable the VR, and our conversations with the survivors and the bereaved are on a very familiar level.
“It’s been a brilliant enabler to demystify and de-stigmatise the world of mental health.”
Ahead of the one-year anniversary, the Press Association was invited to an outreach session which yielded more than a dozen referrals.
Within two hours, the team had chatted with a local Muslim who had become hyper-vigilant over safety since the fire, a young man whose relative was struggling after watching the tower burn, an older person whose friend’s son had died, and an artist whose studio looks on to the block.
An unintended consequence of the limited sessions held has been more than 30 referrals – “literally by virtue of the fact that they are walking past and we are going, ‘do you want to go on a roller coaster?’” Mr O’Brien said.
He went on: “With trauma we see a lot more cases of avoidance in the community.
“So people won’t come forward even when they’re not sleeping, having flashbacks, showing signs of PTSD, they don’t generally deal with it.
“That’s why we’ve got this approach, that’s why we are standing on the streets, and when we start to engage people we are deliberately not saying ‘OK I’m going to take you through a 10-question questionnaire to test your mental health’.”
CNWL have been working with Rosie Collins, founder of tech and behavioural science company Fred, on the pilot which started earlier this year.
The team is hoping to step up outreach by purchasing 20 VR sets in the near future, and are seeking funding for a further year.
They are planning to create a series of mindfulness films in VR featuring local celebrities, and are also working with Grenfell United on possible ways it could help transform the site of the tower.
The team have a permanent VR set up in Grenfell United’s hub, where they say young people love creating masterpieces using an app called Tilt Brush.
Mr O’Brien hopes the technology could be used by residents to co-design a memorial that will replace the tower once it is eventually demolished.
He said: “We are working to create a memorial wall in VR.
“So we are looking to create either a 3D model of the site as it is at the moment, and also the ability for children and adults to create art or sculpture in VR that can be simply viewed in that space.
“Or, and this is the idea we’d really like to build on, VR is the tool that’s used for people to design the memorial as it would be in the future.
“And those are the conversations we are having at the moment with Grenfell United about how we might do that and whether that’s the right thing that people would want.”