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Technology can support forensic psychiatric patients

According to Hanneke Kip, a PhD candidate at the University of Twente, technologies such as Virtual Reality and mobile apps can be of added value for treatment of forensic psychiatric patients. These patients exhibit aggressive or sexually delinquent behaviour, while also suffering from a psychiatric disorder. Treatment mitigates the risk that they will get into trouble again. Ms Kip explains: “My PhD thesis shows that technologies like Virtual Reality (VR) and mobile apps are very promising. They can be a useful addition to standard forms of face-to-face treatment.”

Currently, technology is mainly used to translate existing treatment elements to a digital form, via online modules or video calls, for example. According to Hanneke Kip, technologies like (VR) and mobile apps can, if properly developed and implemented, introduce a truly novel element into the treatment process, one that is simply not possible in standard treatment conversations. For example, technologies like VR can shift the emphasis from ‘thinking and talking’ in the treatment room to ‘doing and experiencing’ in a realistic environment. In addition, mobile apps can be used to address underlying mechanisms of behaviour, such as self-control – an important predictor of criminal behaviour.

VR provides insight into triggers

An extensive needs assessment among forensic psychiatric patients and their healthcare providers has shown that VR offers unique opportunities to better understand the ‘triggers’ for criminal behaviour. Today, the most common approach is to identify these triggers by means of conversations during treatment. The drawback of this approach is that patients can find it difficult to remember events clearly and to describe them accurately. VR makes it possible to place patients in a variety of virtual scenarios, such as an argument with a partner in a living room, or a busy park with groups of people who seem to pose a threat. This enables the patient and the therapist to observe the patient’s immediate responses to difficult situations like these. It also provides a realistic setting in which patients can practise the skills they need to help them deal with difficult situations.

VR application: ‘Triggers & Helpers’

In the course of her research, Ms Kip developed ‘Triggers & Helpers’, an interactive VR application. What makes this application truly unique is that both patients and therapists were actively involved in every stage of its development, by means of a range of research methods. Thus, a key conclusion is that it is essential to involve end-users in the development of these new types of interventions, to ensure that the technology meets their needs and is in line with their skills. The effectiveness of this personalised VR application will be investigated in the upcoming years.

Mobile app for self-control training

Another way of using technology to introduce a novel approach to treatment is to focus interventions on the automatic processes that underpin criminal behaviour. To this end, Hanneke Kip has developed a mobile app for automatic self-control training. In this app, users are asked to use their non-dominant hand for everyday tasks such as opening doors or switching lights on. This continuous effort to suppress an automatic response enables them to train their ‘self-control muscle’. The app was investigated in a study that included 204 university students in order to rapidly pinpoint the active components of the intervention. This study produced promising results. The students who used the app did show improved self-control over time, as opposed to the group that received self-control training via email and a control group, in which no form of intervention was used. This app is currently being investigated in psychiatric patients to determine if and how it is an effective way to increase self-control in complex target groups.

Further information

Hanneke Kip carried out her PhD research at Transfore and at the Department of Psychology, Health & Technology. She is currently employed as a lecturer at the University of Twente’s Technology, Human and Institutional Behaviour Group. She also works as a researcher at Transfore for one day a week. Hanneke’s doctoral degree defence and ceremony will commence at 14.30 on 26 March. Anyone wishing to attend can do so virtually, via this link

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