Investigating the Efficacy of Virtual Experiences on Stress Reduction; The Internet as a Mental Health Resource for Sexual Minorities

Huang, Raymond, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Barnes, Laura, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia
Ferguson, Sean, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

Physical health and mental health are big components to one’s overall well-being. It is easy to assess physical health, however when it comes to assessing mental health, complications start to arise especially when seeking professional treatment. Stigma behind mental health can make it difficult for those who struggle with a mental illness to seek help. Some view it as a notion of weakness and others claim it as not “medically necessary.” Given the circumstances stacked against seeking help, mental health aids become more important. In my technical thesis and STS research, both examine technologies used to seek aid for mental health. My technical thesis investigates a method using immersive virtual technologies to alleviate short-term stress and my STS research focuses on the internet’s role in helping mental well-being.

Inspired by Attention Restoration Theory, which supports individuals’ cognitive abilities recover when they view nature, the technical thesis investigates how viewing nature through different immersive virtual technologies, such as virtual reality headsets, geodomes, and computer screens, can be used to mitigate stress. The main objective of the research was to find evidence supporting the use of virtual reality technologies as a method of reducing stress. An experiment was designed to measure the mood, galvanic skin response, and heart rate variability of participants who have undergone a stressor immediately following with an immersive virtual experience to mitigate the stress induced. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were unable to collect ideal participant data. But by analyzing data collected by our faculty advisor using a different subset of participants, we found that there may be preliminary signs supporting immersive virtual technologies as a method of reducing stress.

The STS topic explores how LGBTQ members and sexual minorities, both at a higher risk to suffer from a mental illness, use online spaces as a way to help their mental health. Extensive literature review and investigation of particular online spaces were performed to analyze how sexual minorities use the internet and how it may help with their mental health. Research suggests sexual minorities use the internet as a source of support and information, and a place to explore their sexual identities.

Further work can be done to expand the research in both studies. In the technical capstone project, the ideal participant pool was not used to collect data, and performing the same study with a younger participant pool with more participants can help validate the preliminary results in the study. Additionally, the STS research can be broadened to see how age may affect interaction with online spaces. The technical capstone project and STS research were both closely related to mental health and shed light on how technology can be used to help with mental well-being.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Virtual Reality, Minority Stress, Technological Fix, Mental Health

School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering
Technical Advisor: Laura Barnes
STS Advisor: Sean Ferguson
Technical Team Members: Bailey Biber, Max Dodge, Melanie Gonzalez, Liv Johnson, Zach Martin, Amanda Sieger, Vy Lan Tran, Sophia Xiao

Issued Date: