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Virtual Reality sessions with victims of serious youth violence

Published: 13 January 2023

Westminster City Council is trialling an innovative new method for tackling serious youth violence by using VR headsets.

The council, working in partnership with The Fred Company, is running a series of workshops with young people and parents who have been affected by violence and criminal activity. Selected groups of young people and parents have been invited to take part in weekly sessions with VR headsets provided by The Fred Company. The VR headsets are programmed with a range of apps, including fishing, nature treks, cooking, and go-kart racing, and are used to promote relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety.

Evidence suggests VR technology can be a useful tool in reducing symptoms of depression and PTSD, and the project has a cognitive neuroscientist who works alongside staff at the IGXU to deliver the sessions.

The programme also aims to improve engagement between young people and the council’s Integrated Gangs and Exploitation Unit (IGXU). The IGXU works to identify young males and females at risk of getting involved in gangs or exploitation, and offers long-term support and guidance to young people and families to help them make positive lifestyle choices. The service offers mediation between different groups or gangs, offers coaching and therapy to affected families, and promote pathways to education and employment.

The results of the VR programme have been very encouraging, with high attendance and engagement with the activities, and vastly improved knowledge and understanding of the services the IGXU offers to vulnerable young people. One cohort of young people who participated in the programme began with no knowledge of the IGXU; at the end of the sessions, 100 per cent said they felt confident they understood the services provided by IGXU and where they could get support. Participants are also asked to score their mood at the beginning and end of each session, to encourage them to be mindful of how they are feeling and to help staff assess the benefits and facilitate conversations around wellbeing. The scores show that participants always felt an improvement in their mood after taking part in a VR session.

The Fred Company previously worked with residents affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster, offering VR sessions to community members. The sessions provided residents with a temporary respite from their experience of trauma and allowed them to relax and engage with support services in a safe setting.

Feedback from Westminster residents participating in the current programme has been overwhelmingly positive, with one young person saying:

“There’s been days where I would come in and I would be really angry and upset, and my mood has just shifted. “I put the headset on I just feel much better after. It’s wicked, I love it.”

Due to its popularity, the council is currently looking at options to expand the programme and is exploring the potential of using VR technology to teach maths and science lessons. The council is also running drop-in sessions across Westminster for other community members to try the technology.

Councillor Aicha Less, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Communities and Public Protection, said:

“This VR programme is a fantastic example of the innovative methods we are using to help young people and families who have been affected by serious youth violence and crime. The results of this pilot scheme are extremely promising, with young people and parents telling us they’ve seen an improvement in their mental and emotional wellbeing, and an increased awareness of support services offered by Westminster City Council.

Councillor Tim Roca, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Young People, Learning and Leisure, said:

“It’s great to see young people enjoying this new project and engaging with our youth services. We want all children growing up in Westminster to have the best start in life, but unfortunately some of them are at risk of falling into gangs or being exploited by criminals. We’re determined to help our most vulnerable young people, offering them the long-term support they need to move away from violence and crime and into education, training and secure employment.”

 

Rosie Collins, Creative Director at The Fred Company, said:

“It’s been a real pleasure collaborating with Westminster IGXU to explore how our VR programmes can be used to support wellbeing and engagement across many different groups.

“The results have been fantastic, and support what we’ve seen in our many other projects: that VR can be used as a powerful tool to really quickly facilitate open conversations and create deep connections between people. Across a range of different groups, we regularly see really marked shifts in mood, even within a single session: reducing stress, improving feelings of hope and excitement."