The metaverse has the potential to cut through barriers of care to help millions of people who struggle with depression, anxiety, substance use, and other mental health problems.
The past few months have been incredibly exciting for the metaverse. Meta (formerly Facebook) plans to spend tens of billions of dollars to fuel the growth of immersive social experiences. They’ve pushed VR into the mainstream by selling the Oculus Quest 2 at a loss ($300) and they’re investing in companies that build social virtual experiences.
A term like “the metaverse” is challenging because people have different definitions.
“The metaverse” is akin to “the Internet” — an overarching term that refers to technologies that can be integrated or disparate.
Our current metaverse consists of applications like Fortnite, Roblox, and World of Warcraft. All of these platforms let users to create a new identity via an avatar and explore 3-D worlds with others.
With the rise of consumer VR, there are new immersive metaverse applications such as VRChat and Rec Room. These also allow people to interact as avatars with one key difference: virtual reality allows people to become an avatar in an immersive experience and feel presence with other avatars. It’s difficult to understand the experience until you try it — wearing a headset, looking around with your head, and feeling a sense of interpersonal distance with other avatars.
Over the past six years we’ve seen VRChat and Rec Room grow to millions of active daily users. We’ve also seen companies like Meta (Facebook) introduce different types of products for working in the metaverse. But what excites me the most is that we can build a special type of metaverse platform that’s designed for mental health.
My Metaverse “Addiction” of 8,000 Hours
When I was 13, I began to play a game like World of Warcraft called Runescape. I was obsessed with Runescape. In the real world I had become depressed but in Runescape I felt a sense of achievement as I leveled my Strength and Runecrafting…I had a sense of social belonging when I founded a clan of 400 people. And most importantly, the hits of dopamine I received in the virtual world kept me going in the real one. After 8,000 hours and years of escaping, eventually I was able to come out of the closet to my clan and overcome my depression. This experience made me think: what if we could build something as compelling as World of Warcraft or Runescape, and as effective as therapy?
This idea stuck with me throughout college and during my fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While at the NIH I got to try virtual reality for the first time. The moment I put on the headset and tried a social experience, I knew it could be incredibly powerful for mental health. I was transported from my lab into a world with a campfire, surrounded by other avatars represented by real people. Even though I was anonymous, I also felt like I was there with other real people.
Once I started my PhD in clinical psychology at Vanderbilt University, studying under the creator of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I began to explore how we could build a metaverse experience that was also therapeutic. My doctoral research demonstrated how immersive VR can be incredibly powerful to facilitate the delivery of therapeutic help. The headset allows a person to be anonymous and become immersed in a completely different world. Over the past two years we’ve commercialized my research to build the leading mental health platform of the metaverse called Innerworld.
Metaverse for Mental Health
Immersive experiences in the metaverse have the potential to transform the standard of mental healthcare by increasing access to immersive, effective and standardized cognitive behavioral interventions. With the recent proliferation of consumer virtual reality headsets there is an enormous potential for networked environments to deliver live, synchronous therapeutic interventions for mental health disorders.
Mental health support is extremely difficult to access across the world. It’s expensive, time-limited, and not always based on the leading scientific evidence. Virtual reality allows us to completely reimagine how mental health help can be delivered. Instead of a one hour therapy appointment each week, we can build a whole world to which people can belong. We can use the environment to train ordinary, empathetic people to be as effective as therapists. And most importantly, we can scale to meet the enormous mental health demand around the world.
One of the most important components of therapy is to help the client share negative thoughts, feelings or behaviors in his or her life. Virtual reality is the most interpersonal and anonymous technology that exists: people can enter a world with the mask of an avatar and yet feel as if they are truly standing next to others. The anonymity allows people to open more and share things they might never tell a person in real life. And these immersive experiences allow people to overcome social isolation, a common factor that contributes to all mental health disorders.
We’ve started to see this happen in our mental health metaverse app called Innerworld. The anonymity of virtual reality allows our members to have a safe, moderated space for mental health support. Virtual reality enables us to train ordinary, empathetic people to lead peer support groups that are as effective as therapy at a fraction of the cost. The immersion provides a strong sense of social connection — members feel comfortable to share in their very first group session and form lasting relationships that provide support. As people open up about their problems, they realize they’re not alone.
One member shared his experience of Innerworld:
I was depressed and couldn’t get out of bed for weeks. I found Innerworld and went to meetings every day for two weeks. The support and tools helped me to finally go to work for the first time. I came home with tears in my eyes, grateful for how Innerworld got me to work.
A New Frontier for Mental Health
The metaverse allows us to democratize access through affordable, immersive experiences that can improve mental health. It’s a new frontier that we can use to completely reimagine how mental health help is delivered and we’re excited to be a part of the journey.