When Noah Robinson was a teenager, he realized that he was gay. Not knowing where to turn or who to talk to, he became anxious and depressed.
And then, he discovered RuneScape, a virtual reality platform and online community. Quickly, he became fascinated with it.
“I escaped into this online world and spent almost 10,000 hours in it,” he says. “I was anonymous as an avatar, but I felt so connected in that community.”
Robinson made friends there, and over time, he felt comfortable enough to talk about what was going on in his life.
“I came out of the closet in RuneScape,” he says. “And then, I came out in the real world when I was 18.”
When Robinson went off to the University of Maryland for college, he studied psychology and became a therapist. Now in his second-to-last year of grad school for clinical psychology, he’s developed Innerworld, a virtual reality app where people create anonymous avatars, receive support from their peers and practice Cognitive Behavioral Immersion (CBI) with help from trained guides.
“On Innerworld, you’re getting support from people and discovering how you can make changes and improve your life,” Robinson notes. “What we’re doing in Innerworld is creating a safe space to amplify those emphatic therapeutic relationships people can have with one another.”
How CBI and Innerworld work
Robinson started developing Innerworld while conducting his clinical psychology Ph.D. research at Vanderbilt University, where he worked under a protégé of the late Dr. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a highly effective psychological treatment that involves employing therapeutic methods like journaling, SMART goals, situation exposure and thought recording to help patients. Essentially, Innerworld is a form of CBT, but in a virtual setting.
“I was trained on how to do CBT and found that it was powerful,” says Robinson, who was recently a keynote speaker at Hollywood & Mind and NAMI Mental Health Gala. “We can teach patients evidence-based tools they can take from their therapy sessions and use in their everyday lives.”
When users sign up for Innerworld, which is free for the basic version and works on phones, computers and VR headsets, they are given a tutorial that informs them the platform does not provide therapy or crisis intervention. Instead, they receive peer-to-peer support from other people on the platform through group sessions that the guides lead. The app is open 24/7, and there is always someone on if a user needs support. Users create an anonymous account and avatar, which removes the stigma that sometimes comes along with receiving mental health support.
As an avatar, users can discreetly chat with other users, or they can join group sessions on mindfulness, depression, toxic positivity and other topics related to mental health. There are also structured chill-and-chat, meditation and casual community hangout sessions multiple times throughout the week. The avatars interact around calming environments, such as a virtual lake or campfire.
The effects of lack of connection and loneliness on mental health
What Innerworld supplies is connection—with other users and guides—in a time when real-life connection is suffering. A lack of connection and social interaction can lead to a range of negative mental and physical health outcomes, including loneliness, depression, anxiety, obesity, dementia and heart disease.
“Innerworld helps us return to more personal interactions,” Robinson says. “You can feel that sense of community with other people in real time.”
While other online platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook offer some form of community, Robinson believes they aren’t healthy. They are designed to be like video games, where users get a rush of dopamine when they receive likes and follows.
“It’s the junk food of communication,” he adds.
Creating authentic connections
Innerworld, on the other hand, offers a healthier version of connection.
“We talk about what makes users want to escape,” Robinson explains. “Instead of being designed to get users to use it more and more, we help with their mental health and create more authentic connections. We don’t try to get people angry or upset because we don’t use algorithms like social media.”
Another feature that makes Innerworld different from social media is that bullying is not tolerated. AI, as well as the platform’s team, works around the clock to make sure that everyone is safe and no one is being targeted in a negative way.
“We have crisis resources we direct people to as well, so they are psychologically safe,” Robinson adds. “There are no graphic descriptions of substance abuse, it’s non-judgmental and we have protocol in place if anyone feels triggered.”
The app is for adults 18 and up, and a version for 13- to 17-year-olds is currently in beta. This is something that Innerworld Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer (and singer/songwriter) Jewel is particularly interested in. According to Robinson, she decided to partner with the platform because she runs the Inspiring Children Foundation, a nonprofit that helps youths with their mental health challenges.
“I was blown away by Jewel’s story and how she developed her own tools that are similar to ours,” Robinson says. “It was an incredible fit, and it’s been exciting to work together. When Jewel joined us, she helped us reach new communities.”
From virtual reality to the real world
Since Robinson became comfortable talking about his sexuality on RuneScape, he later came out in the real world. Now, an Innerworld user named Sandra, who goes by the username Moongoddess, has followed a similar path.
Sandra was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and often didn’t leave her house because of it.
“When the pandemic hit, it barely affected me because I never went out anyway,” she says. “I had given up [and] accepted my fate.”
She discovered Innerworld after buying a VR headset—her way to explore the world. At first, she was anxious and afraid, keeping her distance from other users and only listening to group sessions.
“When I listened to that kindness, that compassion, and the life stories of others, something in me changed,” she says. “I started going to more meetings. In fact, I went to every meeting I could. In time, I started to realize I wasn’t alone, that there’s a whole world out there of people who are sad, scared and alone. [There was] a whole world of people who are anxious and depressed, and really just want someone to talk to.”
Mental health help on-the-go
Through the app, Sandra soon gathered the strength to venture outside of her house—with the Innerworld app on her iPhone just in case she needed to use it. She brought it with her wherever she went, including a concert where she was surrounded by thousands of people.
“In just three months on this application, it took away 50 years of terror that I lived in,” she says. “I started to learn how to love myself again, how to trust people again and how to understand my own self-worth.”
In short, Innerworld was life-changing for Sandra.
“I never thought I’d be the person I am today,” Sandra says. “I have since sold my house and bought a condo to be closer to my daughter while awaiting my first grandson…. None of this would have been possible without Innerworld.”
Investing in Innerworld for employees
When Robinson is out and about, he makes it a point to talk about his app with people. He’s now made a habit out of telling airline workers about it, and he’s noticed a pattern.
“They start to cry when they receive the offer of mental health support,” he says.
These employees mention that their companies only cover a few therapy sessions… and that’s it. It obviously isn’t enough, considering that as of 2019, 15% of working-age adults were estimated to have a mental disorder, according to the World Health Organization. Globally, 12 billion working days are lost every single year to anxiety and depression.
“Employees need a lot more mental health support and continuous access to something whenever they need it,” Robinson says. “We have a product that costs less than therapy. Most people with mild or moderate symptoms of depression or anxiety can benefit from peer-support interventions.”
Right now, Innerworld is working with a variety of companies, offering their platform as part of the benefits package for employees. It’s something that Robinson is hoping to build upon in the years to come, along with expanding the app, which currently has 100,000 downloads and counting.
“Technology has transformed and revolutionized many different industries, but it hasn’t yet done this for mental health support and intervention,” Robinson says. “We want to make it so easy for someone who has depression or anxiety or is struggling with any kind of mental health issue to get it the moment they need it.”
After all, according to Robinson and published research on the topic, human connection accounts for positive outcomes on mental health.
“AI and technology are very exciting, but they won’t replace the core of what makes therapy work, which is human connection.”
Photo by PeopleImages/iStock.