Stand in the shoes of abuse victim via unique VR experience

Lucy Baxter tells JOANNE SAVAGE about using virtual reality technology to understand, empathise with and process emotional abuse and trauma

Friday, 28th May 2021, 5:46 pm
The VR experience allows you into the victim's domestic situation in order to build empathy

A novel new project designed by filmmaker, mental health campaigner and academic Lucy Baxter, will allow people to more fully understand the insidious experiences of domestic abuse and coercive control via a virtual reality headset that allows the viewer to embody the position of a victim in an immersive virtual space.

VR, which allows you to inhabit a three-dimensional visual context, is increasingly being used in healthcare settings, in helping people with dementia rediscover forgotten memories by situating them in places that were once familiar to them, or in the treatment of PTSD and sexual abuse, where exposure to virtual traumatic situations helps sufferers reframe and reconfigure traumatic experience so that they can better process ordeals, become desensitised to the fear triggered in these situations and reach a place of greater psychological and emotional wellbeing as a result. VR has also been used in helping war veterans confront the traumas of combat and readjust to civilian life. In fact, the mental health benefits of virtual reality therapy are just beginning to be understood and applied in healthcare settings in what is still a groundbreaking new frontier of digital experience.

Now, Ms Baxter, intends to help people reach an enhanced understanding of a form of abuse that has been worryingly on the increase since the start of lockdown, with research showing that the PSNI were responding to calls relating to domestic abuse every 16 minutes.

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“I wanted to make something positive to help people understand emotional abuse in a domestic setting and coercive control, which was only criminalised here in Northern Ireland last year,” says Lucy.

“As a filmmaker I wanted to create something that could have a practical application in healthcare and hopefully for use within the criminal justice system to help both victims and perpetrators identify this kind of abuse more accurately, because a lot of the time victims in these scenarios do not see abuse as abuse, and will blame themselves for what they are made to put up with at the hands of an abusive partner. They are often low in confidence and engage in self-criticism instead of apportioning blame. They start to see patterns and its about empowering them to understand what is and what is not acceptable.

“I wanted to promote conversation around the issue and to point out the kind of emotionally abusive behaviours that women, and indeed men, should not tolerate in personal relationships.

“I’m interested in social prescribing and in encouraging healthcare practitioners to recommend creative processes to patients as a way to deal with mental health problems.”

Baxter, who runs charity Mental Abuse Matters, first began trying to convey emotional abuse in all its complexities through animation before deciding to employ more pioneering technologies like virtual reality.

“I realised VR has this profound immersive power that has so much potential for use in healthcare. So I realised there was not much cinematic, live action VR being done that might allow people to come to an enhanced appreciation of how a victim of mental and emotional abuse might feel.”

The experience, which is ten minutes long, is an attempt to define what can be a nebulous, pernicious form of abuse that leaves many suffering in silence and unable to even identify their experience as one that is profoundly damaging.

“Society is only just beginning to find a vocabulary for emotional abuse, and I wanted to help in that process and really promote empathy for victims. So in this VR experience you actually embody the position of the victim, in this case a woman, and you see how her partner speaks to and her and the negative effect that this has.

“I wanted people to understand this from the inside out and have them feel what this kind of abuse is like by virtually becoming the victim in the immersive space.”

Baxter wrote, produced and directed the VR experience. You start off sitting in a bedroom and then your partner arrives, asks if you’re ready and friends start to arrive for dinner. Then you join them at the table and anxiety and dissociation start to build as the victim becomes uncomfortable.

“She goes into her own emotional world and memories conveyed by visual blurring. Then the sound starts to build up and the sense of panic. Towards the end there is a direct confrontation with her partner.

“The abuse is not overt. He will look at her a certain way, there will be a little dig, humiliating stories. He is an avuncular, charming man and everyone else is very on side with him, but you see that he looks at her in a different way and belittles her.

“She breaks at the end, and then what happens is a very common pattern whereby he is able to suggest that she is imagining it all and that she is the one with the problem. She feels a panic attack and finally is placed in a kind of calming, sun-lit landscape.”

The project is being trialled within health and social care settings.

Ultimately it is about promoting empathy with victims of emotional abuse by allowing you to see things from their perspective in what is really a spectacularly virtual-yet-real way. You are stepping into the shoes of a victim of domestic abuse and being offered immediate access to her perspective in a conflict scenario.

Baxter’s intention is to acquire funding to create further VR experiences that will engage with other forms of emotional and mental abuse, of which there are many.

“I’m also interested in working with men and understanding things from their perspective because it isn’t just women who are subject to this kind of abuse, although it is much less talked about because of the nature of societal norms and gender stereotypes.”

Baxter wants perpetrators and victims of abuse to be able to understand the complexities of such negative dynamics and by building empathy and insight, to promote change in our personal relationships.

She points to other therapeutic applications of VR such as allowing female victims of sexual abuse to confront that trauma in this immersive medium in order that they may be able to defang their experiences and reach greater emotional and psychological equilibrium.

The key issue here, says Baxter, is understanding the fine line between exposure VR therapy being a useful tool and it being a potentially retriggering experience that excavates trauma in a way that could be detrimental to healing: “Going into a VR experience which is your deepest fear, the thing that causes you to have flashbacks or panic attacks, the idea is that your brain has a safe space to process that over time in the immersive context. You can take someone through that traumatic pathway, but because it is virtual and therefore a safe space, the idea is that you can learn to process trauma.”

Even more fascinating, Baxter refers to a study conducted in Barcelona, where they were looking at empathy levels in perpetrators of physical domestic abuse.

“Their empathy levels were immeasurably heightened after going through a VR experience where they were exposed to a physically abusive scenario. They started to see the pain and trauma caused by their behaviour.”

Baxter points to the fact that much abusive behaviour is learned dysfunction from family background and upbringing, and simply failing to understand the correct and compassionate way to engage with others, particularly in the intimate domestic sphere.

“Perpetrators need help as well and I think everybody needs to be better educated on how to conduct fruitful, positive and loving relationships. I think all of us can benefit from help with this.”