How Ukrainians are using Virtual Reality to improve their mental health

Virtual reality (VR) has been finding more exciting applications for healthcare: VR tools help ease chronic pain, change body temperature, or improve coordination. As a Ukrainian, lately, I often feel like escaping to a different reality. Can VR provide new solutions for mental health challenges as well?


This is the third blog in the series of mental health projects on Ukraine. This time, I interviewed Taya Kabaeva — a multidisciplinary artist with a passion for merging arts and science. Together with Olga Shyshlova, from our previous blog, she created a VR-based art therapy for children with autism — VR KIDS’ CITY. Now she is curious to apply the same logic to help refugee children in Ukraine to process their trauma.


I asked her to write about her project and how did it start, and then to reflect on the events of the war. This is Taya’s account.


The poster on the back says “Cities are people, not walls”. Photo: Kseniia Kozeniuk

About the project


“In 2018, I was in close contact with a company developing affordable immersive technologies Sensorama Lab. They are very passionate about social impact and teaching new technologies to children. As an artist and a filmmaker, I was excited about the huge potential for creativity that VR was offering. I was also reading up a lot on the successful mental health applications of VR and with the co-founder of Sensorama Lab, Kyril Pokutnyy, we came up with an idea to explore using VR for the purposes of art therapy.


Photo: Kseniia Kozeniuk

We teamed up with Olga Shyshlova and came up with an unusual project — Kids VR city. Our project helped children on the autistic spectrum to learn socialization skills. They often experience problems with social interaction so we invited them to create their own city in the digital space and learn how to interact in it. Our group was small, with just eight children, from eight to seventeen years old — younger children can feel a bit queasy wearing VR glasses. Olga is a big fan of evidence-based practices, so we had a protocol for every possible situation and each child had a personal guide to help with the equipment.


Photos from Kids VR City. Courtesy of Taya Kabaeva

Each session was building on the previous one: we started with a small discussion about the topic of the session, then proceeded to visualize our ideas with traditional graphic techniques, like drawing with markers, paint, and sculpting with playdough, and, finally, moved to 3D modelling in the digital world. Topics of the sessions varied: first, we drew a landscape of our city, then built houses, planted trees around them, added roads, transportation, and infrastructure, and discussed public and private spaces. Then our houses started to have an interior, we painted our rooms. Finally, we drew our avatars and started to visit each other. In our last meeting, everyone had to draw their favourite fruits and vegetables in a magical garden that we created altogether.


Photos from Kids VR City. Courtesy of Taya Kabaeva

Collaborative work revealed unexpected social dynamics. Some children wanted to destroy the objects of others and paint their own over them. Others were ready for teamwork. One child painted fruits of different colours and walked into them (in a 3D world, walking into objects is possible) to see, which colour made him feel the most comfortable — it was orange. The toughest task was painting an auto portrait, to reflect on who you are in this 3D space. No one was trying to reach photographic similarity but rather reflect on some personal state or quality. One girl painted herself destroying tanks with two massive lasers coming out of her eyes. This was 4 years ago, she must have felt something was coming…


Photos from Kids VR City. Courtesy of Taya Kabaeva

In the last session, we presented our work — it looked like a full-scale professional art project: a huge interactive map, like a colourful amusement park with portraits of participants, plants, and architecture with a special terrain created entirely out of huge words…Children were very happy to go on a tour around it together and upon the recognition of the objects they have created, the room would fill up with laughter.


Photos from Kids VR City. Courtesy of Taya Kabaeva

It is often believed that children on the spectrum dislike touch and social interactions. Olga, however, said that years of experience working with this population, proved to her the complete opposite. They crave social connection, they are just lacking the tools to comfortably initiate it. We found that these tools can be taught! We clearly saw this during our presentation.


Suddenly children, who normally dislike touch, started to approach each other in their avatars and hug. This new space opened the doors for them to feel comfortable initiating this communication. In the real world, they were all wearing huge headsets during those hugs — it was such a touching moment.


Photos from Kids VR City. Courtesy of Taya Kabaeva

About the war


This project happened a long time ago but recently I started thinking about it again. Wearing VR glasses, one feels very private and isolated from the world, it feels like a really safe space to be in. In our previous project, we saw that some children were shy to paint in front of their peers but in VR they were quickly able to loosen up and express themselves.


Since the war started, I have been contemplating a lot about what “safe space” means to me. This concept keeps changing almost daily, safe space does not exist for us anymore. A few weeks ago my house was my safe space — my fortress. On the day of the invasion, my safe space was my friend’s flat, then an underground station, then a bomb shelter, and now it is Uzhhorod — the Westernmost town in Ukraine.


As adults, we are under immense stress because we are pushed to feel like we are constantly in the risk zone. It must be even harder for children that have to flee. Ukrainian refugee children have to travel and change places all the time now. They grow up very fast in this context. Their precocious conversations touch upon serious subjects of life and death, danger and safety. What is this “safe space” for them? What makes them feel at peace? Do they still have a concept of home? Perhaps together we can think about all the physical objects we decided to take in the haste of leaving, phrases we have heard on the way, and anything else that we find important and populate our new VR homes with them.


The way people paint in a 3D space reveals a lot about their character. People have different quality of brushstrokes, they position objects differently, and they can move around. It is a fertile ground for interpretation of their inner dynamic. My dream is to team up with a psychologist and provoke a conversation not just about what we have lost in the war but also about what some of us have gained. I know some families bonded more because of the war. A lot of people tell me they value life now more than ever because its fragility became apparent. I would never wish for anyone to have to live through the war. However, we are in it and if there is a way to portray and share our reflections on the present, maybe they will help us build a better future.”


Photos from Kids VR City. Courtesy of Taya Kabaeva

After the interview, I felt compelled to help Taya find funds for this project. Together we applied for a grant to organize VR sessions for refugee children based on the concept of “safe space”, and were successful. I cannot wait to see the result of this collaboration. If you would like to support the creation of a digital gallery with children’s works, please reach out to Taya’s e-mail: tajakabaj@gmail.com