Pathways to flourishing: leveraging Virtual Reality for cultivating compassion, resilience, social connectedness, and healthy habits in emerging adults facing chronic health challenges


About half of youths with chronic phys­i­cal con­di­tions develop anx­i­ety and/or depres­sion, caus­ing sig­nif­i­cant dis­tress and dis­rup­tion within their lives over many years. This under­scores their need for well-being tools– par­tic­u­larly ones that aid in nav­i­gat­ing future adver­si­ties, set­ting young people up with the skills and abil­i­ties to flour­ish through­out life.

This project is engaging young people aged 16-30 years with lived experience of chronic, physical conditions with or without co-occurring mental health concerns. This project also engages community partners (service providers, clinicians, caregivers, allied health professionals, academics). Please connect with us if you are interested in joining the project team or collaborating with us!

Emerging adults — also known as Transitional age youth (TAY; age 16–30) — with chronic health con­di­tions face sig­nif­i­cant psy­choso­cial chal­lenges during a for­ma­tive devel­op­men­tal period, includ­ing coping with adver­sity, with anx­i­ety and depres­sion co-occurring in approx­i­mately half of this group. Many life events (e.g., major relo­ca­tions, edu­ca­tion or career tran­si­tions, med­ical diag­noses, care­giv­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties) create unique oppor­tu­ni­ties for growth, and also can cause adver­sity, espe­cially during emerg­ing adult­hood– a dynamic time with increased risks to mental health. Yet, this life phase presents a remark­able oppor­tu­nity to develop skills and habits that ripple through­out life towards enhanced well-being.

Interventions using con­tem­pla­tive and strengths-based adap­tive skills approaches to pos­i­tive func­tion­ing, such as devel­op­ing coping and resilience abil­i­ties, are par­tic­u­larly effec­tive for TAYs with chronic health con­di­tions. However, access­ing inter­ven­tions and sup­port­ive envi­ron­ments can be chal­leng­ing for these youths who require tai­lored tools that accom­mo­date their lived real­i­ties. Unfortunately, many young indi­vid­u­als, par­tic­u­larly those with­out formal mental health diag­noses face a lack of acces­si­ble health and well-being ser­vices, often receiv­ing sup­port only in crisis sit­u­a­tions. Virtual Reality inter­ven­tions (VRIs) demon­strate poten­tial for imbu­ing adap­tive skills such as coping, mind­ful­ness, and com­pas­sion towards well-being. Additionally, VR can pro­vide authen­tic social con­nec­tion at a time when sup­port­ive peer envi­ron­ments are vital and in-person inter­ac­tions are often unfeasible.

Our aim is to develop a proof-of-concept Virtual Reality Intervention (VRI) that trains adap­tive skills of coping, resilience, and com­pas­sion­ate abil­i­ties — and builds resilience towards adver­sity. Tailored for TAYs with chronic health con­di­tions, we’ll inte­grate their lived expe­ri­ence in a co-design research process. Leveraging our research team’s abil­ity to rapidly develop VR, we will amplify the VRI’s rel­e­vance using novel biosen­sors and AI within its inter­face. Through fea­si­bil­ity and accept­abil­ity test­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tor sup­port, we will explore how to extend reach and acces­si­bil­ity of the VRI to TAYs through dis­tri­b­u­tion points such as sup­ported at-home use, and inte­grated in rou­tine health services.

This inter­dis­ci­pli­nary project draws upon knowl­edge from lived expe­ri­ences of TAYs and com­mu­nity ser­vices providers who inform equi­table, rel­e­vant insight on the VRI devel­op­ment. Researchers pro­vide the­o­ret­i­cal and method­olog­i­cal exper­tise from cog­ni­tive sci­ence, psy­chol­ogy, neu­ro­science, human-centered design, and VR/human-computer interaction.

A VRI can be a gate­way for TAYs with chronic health con­di­tions to access early inter­ven­tion. Using VR could reduce stigma asso­ci­ated with seek­ing sup­port, empow­er­ing TAYs to build skills for future chal­lenges. This research is posi­tioned to facil­i­tate a par­a­digm shift in how these TAYs develop adap­tive skills in a VRI, aiding them in real-world sit­u­a­tions and future adver­sity. The out­comes of this work will pro­vide insight into the poten­tial of a VRI within early inter­ven­tion, and out­line design and imple­men­ta­tion con­sid­er­a­tions spe­cific to youth needs within a com­mu­nity con­text. Early and mean­ing­ful engage­ment of young people and com­mu­nity ser­vice providers/partners is cen­tral to these out­comes, and we warmly wel­come col­lab­o­ra­tions to bring the project vision to life.

Our Process

Our trans­dis­ci­pli­nary approach will ground lived expe­ri­ence of end users through­out the research process, along­side inte­gra­tion and syn­the­sis of theory, method­olo­gies, and design prin­ci­ples that have tra­di­tion­ally been iso­lated within the domains of cog­ni­tive sci­ence, psy­chol­ogy, neu­ro­science, health sci­ences, com­puter sci­ence, and VR design research. In build­ing upon our prior research on VR as a pos­i­tive tech­nol­ogy, we are embrac­ing a Human-Centered Design (HCD) co-design process with this cur­rent project, with a research/co-design team of aca­d­e­mics, design­ers, health care providers, mind­ful­ness facil­i­ta­tors, and target end users within the com­mu­nity. Critically, we are using an equity lens within this co-design process to engage at-risk end users who are also tra­di­tion­ally under­rep­re­sented in research.

Publications and exhibits

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Quesnel, D., & Riecke, B. E. (2023, June 8). Get (Com)Passionate for Wellbeing: Designing a Virtual Reality Wellbeing Intervention for Emerging Adults with Chronic Medical Conditions. Poster Session. Mind & Life 2023 Summer Research Institute (SRI), Garrison, New York, USA. (Download)
Miller, N., Desnoyers-Stewart, J., Stepanova, E. R., Adhikari, A., Riecke, B. E., Pennefather, P. P., Kitson, A., & Quesnel, D. (2023, November 23). Awedyssey [Curated Mixed Reality Exhibition]. Cosmic Nights: Humans in Space, H.R. MacMillan Space Centre.
Miller, N., Stepanova, E. R., Desnoyers-Stewart, J., Adhikari, A., Kitson, A., Pennefather, P., Quesnel, D., Brauns, K., Friedl-Werner, A., Stahn, A., & Riecke, B. E. (2023). Awedyssey: Design Tensions in Eliciting Self-transcendent Emotions in Virtual Reality to Support Mental Well-being and Connection. Proceedings of the 2023 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference, 189–211.

Related Projects

Awedyssey: VR for pro­mo­ting and enhanc­ing well-being

SIRIUS — Virtual Earthgazing to mit­i­gate effects of sen­sory isolation

Virtual Earthgazing — towards an overview effect in Virtual Reality

Support & Acknowledgement

Government of Canada



The project “Pathways to flour­ish­ing: lever­ag­ing Virtual Reality” draws upon research sup­ported by the Government of Canada’s New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF).

the Government of Canada's New Frontiers in Research Fund