VMedKit—a Lagos-based startup—is tackling the problem of mental disorders with virtual reality (VR) technology.

The founding team of VMedKit, namely, Okon Emmanuel (CEO), Igboba Philip (CTO) and Feyisetan Oluwatoyosi (COO), want to make mental healthcare accessible to Nigerians and Africans.

Mental disorders are among the leading causes of disability in the world. One in four people (about 25% of the 7.7 billion people on earth) will be affected by mental or neurological disorders in their lifetime.

In Nigeria, the figure of people that are mentally ill is staggering. 60 million people, 30% of Nigeria's estimated 200 million population, are suffering from mental illness. This means there are more mentally ill Nigerians than there are people living in Ghana (30.5 million), Niger (23.5 million) and Norway (5.3 million) combined.

A chart of countries with lesser population than mentally ill Nigerians

Generally, the healthcare system in Nigeria is moribund. It is bedeviled by numerous challenges, including lack of funds, doctors and infrastructure, which has led to the rise of many health technology (healthtech) startups profferring innovative solutions to these challenges. For mental health, the case is worse-off.

Out of the meagre budget allocation for health, only 4% is earmarked for mental health. Also, the Mental Health Policy, which addresses mental health issues, including advocacy, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, was formulated in 1991 and has not be reviewed since then.

Consequently, conversations about mental health are relegated. And this has festered misconceptions; one of such misconceptions is: anyone that is mentally ill is mad. The psychiatric hospitals in Nigeria, for instance, such as the Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Abeokuta (Aro) and Yaba Psychiatric Hospital (Yaba Left), have been stigmatized as hospitals for mad people.

Mental illness is not limited to only insanity, it includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, attention difficulty and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), phobia, autism, dementia, depression, etc. According to the 2018 Lancet Commission report, there is an increase in the cases of depression and anxiety across the world and by 2030, the global economy could lose $16 trillion to mental illness.

How virtual reality is helping to treat mental disorders

Virtual reality refers to immersive, interactive, multi-sensory, viewer-centered, three dimensional computer generated environments and the combination of technologies required to build these environments. Per the Industrial Pyschiatry Journal

There are different treatments for mental illness, including medication, support group and psychotherapy. Some decades ago, exposure therapy—a treatment that makes the patients to relive their traumas and face their fears in a controlled and imaginary environment—was added to the list. With the advent of virtual reality, it became virtual reality therapy (VRET) and patients no longer have to imagine the environment as they can have a more realistic experience using a VR headset. By 2025, the global augmented reality and virtual reality healthcare market is projected to be worth $5.1 billion (₦1.8 trillion).

Meet VMedKit

VMedKit (Virtual Medical Kit) does not only develop the content that facilitate VRET, its flagship software can also be used by individuals for their personal wellness and meditation exercise.

The CEO, Emmanuel, said VMedKit applications can be used with most VR headsets, but they often recommend any version of Oculus, which is owned by Facebook Inc.

Launched in 2018, VMedKit has worked with four hospitals, including Yaba Left and the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital, as well as the Patrick Speech and Learning Centre—the first autism centre in Nigeria.

The COO, Feyisetan, who is a clinical psychologist, together with mentors from health institutions in and outside Nigeria guide the six-member team of VMedKit, which is spread across Lagos and Abuja, in the development of their content and software.

Meet Okon Emmanuel, Founder and CEO of VMedKit

As a first class graduate of Statistics from the University of Ibadan in 2016, Emmanuel had resolved to follow the path of entrepreneurship.

I've always wanted to build a company, but I needed to make sure the company is not only about making money. It must be solving a problem; a company I will be proud of its legacy, Emmanuel said.

During his national youth service in 2017, Emmanuel came across a mental health awareness campaign, which led him to exploring literatures on the subject. "I discovered that there is a lot of stigma associated with mental health, especially for men", Emmanuel said.

With his knowledge of programming, 3D modelling and VR technology, Emmanuel was curious to know the role technology can play in mental health. "From my research, I found that developed countries are already using VR in the treatment of mental illness. Limbix, a four-year-old healthtech company in the United States, provides virtual reality therapy to treat mental illness. That was how I started VMedKit in December 2017", he said.

VMedKit is contributing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.

The company, however, officially launched in May 2018.

Emmanuel Okon, Founder and CEO of VMedKit

Last year, Emmanuel and his co-founder, Philip, were part of the four-man team that came third at the FirstBank Fintech 2.0 hackathon. The team built Cybersmart, an API that can be integrated into multiple platforms and used to identify fraudulent transactions.

Earlier this year, also, Emmanuel was named among the 22 social entrepreneurs that joined the 2019 Yunus&Youth Fellowship Programme. Yunus&Youth is aimed at supporting entrepreneurs running for-profit businesses that have social impact.

More recently, Emmanuel was named as one of the 20 finalists of the 2019 Anzisha Prize. The other Nigerian selected out of the 800 applications received from across Africa is the founder of Trep Labs, Abdulwaheed Alayande. After a 12-day accelerator bootcamp, the 20 finalists will be presenting their ideas at the 9th Anzisha Prize Forum on October 22, 2019, in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the ultimate winner will go home with the grand prize of $25,ooo (₦9 million).

I'm elated to be among the finalists. Because I clock 22 this year, this was my last chance to be part of the Anzisha Fellowship programme. Even if I don't emerge the grand prize winner, I'm glad to be part of the finalists, which makes me an Anzisha Fellow. Emmanuel said.

While VMedKit is the first to startup in the VRET space in Nigeria, it is not the first VR health startup to launch in Africa. VRHealth, which was launched in 2017, uses virtual reality in tackling the problem of drug abuse in South Africa.

At the time of publishing this article, however, the website of VRHealth can't be reached and every effort to reach the VRHealth team was futile.

Indeed, the use of VR in mental health in Africa is somewhat new. But with the grit of Emmanuel and his team and support from mentors, VMedKit could become a pacesetter.