Firepit on the Beach

Supporting mental wellbeing remotely with a 3D immersive virtual reality environment

Dr Pete Bridge
School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

This case study shows how a virtual reality tropical beach environment can help support mental wellbeing for students on remote placements.

Students on placement remote from the University, friends and family can experience mental wellbeing challenges. This unique VR application allows them to escape to a VR tropical island to engage in mindfulness practice, meet peers, receive confidential tutor support or just relax on the beach listening to the wind in the palm tree branches.


Please briefly describe the activity undertaken for the case study

The SHELTA (Support & Help Environment for Learners To Access) is a 3D immersive virtual reality environment that facilitates remote peer and tutor support for health students on clinical placement. The SHELTA was developed by Draw and Code (a local software development company) as part of our successful £200k Office for Students funded mental wellbeing project bid. The software, in conjunction with 3D VR Quest 2 headsets, places users into a calming 3D tropical beach environment where students and tutors can meet for reflection and mutual support. Users create their own “avatar” and engage with others through the avatars and real-time speech. 

Students can use the island for confidential discussions with support tutors, meet socially, undertake formal group peer reflection, or engage in mindfulness and meditation with a range of guided audio tracks that use the VR environment as a focus. The project provides a more immersive social experience than existing remote solutions such as Zoom, and aims to reduce feelings of isolation and depression by providing an enjoyable and realistic forum for accessing support and interaction.

How was the activity implemented?

Participants are recruited via email and invited to use SHELTA during one of their clinical placements. Participating students are provided with a VR headset and instructions. They then use the headset in their spare time whenever they wish while on placement; this can be in clinical sites across the UK ranging from Plymouth to Dundee. Students can use the mindfulness resources offline to help develop their resilience and reduce anxiety. They also have the opportunity to engage with peers and tutors informally at weekly “open beach” events on the Island. Students can also request a confidential 1:1 tutor support session; these sessions provide an opportunity to chat and receive signposting to more formal mental wellbeing support and resources.

Recessed Cave with a cushion surrounded by candles, and vines above

Has this activity improved programme provision and student experience, if so how?

Evaluation is still ongoing, but informal feedback indicates that students find SHELTA to be useful, engaging and fun. The mindfulness resources are reducing anxiety levels and improving mental wellbeing. Students also enjoy the informal weekly catch-ups where they can chat about clinical experiences, share tips for TV programmes or simply enjoy each other’s company. Previous data has indicated that health students nationally can struggle on placement, so we are confident that this will improve wellbeing and the overall student experience.

Zen Garden with a tree, plants and butterflies

Did you experience any challenges in implementation, if so how did you overcome these?

Initial uptake of the mental wellbeing application was slow; this was partly due to the need for students to consent to participation and complete regular data collection surveys. We provided incentives to participate which increased uptake. We believe that deployment of the application via the headsets as part of routine student support without the requirement for data collection will prove popular and effective.

How does this case study relate to the Hallmarks and Attributes you have selected?

The SHELTA application is designed to build resilience through mindfulness training, equipping students to undertake remote work-based placements while gaining and providing peer support. As such it is a key element of the Confidence attribute. It also relates strongly to the Global Citizenship attribute by facilitating pseudo-anonymity through the use of avatars. This frees users from identifying their gender, ethnicity or other protected characteristics, promoting inclusivity within the VR environment. Users also gain valuable experience of operating within a VR environment, providing exposure to emerging digital technology as part of the Digital Fluency hallmark.

How could this case study be transferred to other disciplines?

Mental wellbeing support is essential for all students, especially those undertaking work-based placements away from home. This application is suitable for students who experience anxiety or depression and would benefit from mindfulness training and remote and pseudo-anonymous peer or tutor support. Deployment to other disciplines would require the purchase of VR headsets. Once the evaluation is complete, the application will be ready for wider use. This activity requires purchase of a batch of VR headsets, a willing cohort of students and staff members who are able to interact with the cohort in the VR environment.

If someone else were to implement the activity within your case study what advice would you give them?

There is an emerging range of VR environments designed for mental wellbeing and also some useful VR-based mindfulness applications but the SHELTA is the only one that incorporates the VR environment as the focus of the mindfulness practice and allows peer and tutor informal contact. Implementation of this activity requires purchase of a batch of VR headsets, a willing cohort of students and some staff members who are able to interact with the cohort in the VR environment.

The key issues we had to overcome were initial fears and scepticism of users regarding the new technology. Many VR applications are capable of inducing vertigo or motion sickness in users; largely related to rapidly changing points of view and a disconnect between the visual stimulus and other senses. Overcoming this relied on the development and sharing of short video clips highlighting how the environment works and reinforcing the safe and relaxing nature of the application.

The latest updates are broadcast on twitter: @drpbridge #SHELTA

Creative Commons Licence
Supporting mental wellbeing remotely with a 3D immersive virtual reality environment by Dr Pete Bridge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.