Help Club: Peer-Based Mental Health Intervention Using Social VR

What if a virtual reality headset isn’t just for gaming, but instead it can deliver an intervention that’s appealing to a younger generation and allows them to anonymously explore problems with a virtual coach as much as they want, whenever they want, all for the cost of two therapy sessions?

—Noah Robinson

I have been meaning to write about Help Club and Very Real Help for quite some time now! I’m glad that today I have finally had the opportunity to talk about a program that is very special to me.

Help Club is the brainchild of Noah Robinson, the founder and CEO of Very Real Help, the company that is building this social VR platform, and a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Vanderbilt University. (Many of you will no doubt remember Noah as PsychNoah, one of the three convivial hosts of the former popular VRChat talk show called Endgame, which I have previously written about on my blog hereherehere, here, and here).

In the following TEDx Nashville talk (which I highly recommend you watch in full), Noah explains how he turned his early experiences with virtual worlds and virtual reality into an idea for a portable, accessible, anonymous, and more affordable solution for those battling mental health and addiction issues:

The purpose of Help Club is to provide a safe social space for peer-based mental health and addictions support, combining cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) tools with social virtual reality in a process called Cognitive Behavioral Immersion (a term which Very Real Help has trademarked). According to their website:

Help Club utilizes the immersive nature of the VR ecosystem to help users defy distance and the physical constraints of the real world, transporting them to their own happier place. Once transported to our built-for-wellness worlds, users will be immediately provided with resources, calming games, and guided exercises to help them recenter, recharge, and reenergize their mental wellbeing.

After passing a short screening, most users will also have access to a groundbreaking form of group intervention called Cognitive Behavioral Immersion™. This proprietary, peer-led group approach gives users unlimited access to potentially life-changing mental health help. These event-based group sessions focus on issues that are important to users. These aren’t led by therapists or doctors—anyone can train to become a helper and begin to make an impact in the lives of others.

We will also have staff in Help Club 24/7 to ensure a positive, curated experience for all.

Noah describes his model for Help Club in a quote from the above TEDx talk:

In cognitive behavioral therapy, we have three ways to address negative mood: examine thoughts, change behaviors or adjust physiology. What we’re seeing with VR is that there may be a 4th way to change mood—by immersing the person in a virtual environment…

We’re building an intervention that’s more portable, accessible, anonymous and affordable than therapy. Instead of using a therapist, we’re teaching peers how to help each other—an immersive, therapeutic social world filled with people, represented as anonymous avatars, who can teach each other the key skills in therapy…

We can provide a change in environment—the thing that’s being sought through drug use—to give immediate relief to people. Yes, it’s an escape into a virtual world, but when they escape—when people escape to get very real help, we can help them confront the situations that lead them to want to escape, in the first place. And our research suggests that we can train peers on how to help each other to make it much more affordable and accessible, and just as effective as therapy.

Help Club is available for in a VR version for users of both tethered and standalone headsets, including the Oculus Quest via the App Lab, and in a flat-screen version for Windows and MacOS users (there’s also a beta iOS mobile client). You can download client software here.

Specially-trained volunteers take turns as moderators, guiding small groups of users in hour-long virtual meetups scheduled throughout the week, in which they discuss issues in their daily lives, troubleshoot solutions, and provide positive affirmation for each other. I can tell you that during the pandemic, it was wonderful to be able to slip on my Oculus Rift or Valve Index VR headset and attend a meeting, rather than having to put on my parka, get into my car, and drive somewhere across town! I always came away feeling that I had been listened to, heard, affirmed, and empowered.

After a closed beta-text period (full disclosure: I was one of the people who participated in group sessions and helped test and debug the platform late last year and earlier this year), Help Club is now available to everyone who is interested. Please note that there is a short screening process which takes place, to explain how Help Club works, what your responsibilities are, and to give you fuller access to their Discord community, which is a key part of the program. Everyone assumes an anonymous avatar identity for privacy purposes, both in-world and on Discord. So I am not “Ryan Schultz” on Help Club…but if you do decide to join based on this blogpost, tell’em Ryan sent you! 😉

For further information about Help Club, you can visit their website (there’s a contact form at the bottom of the home page), join their Discord server, or you can follow them on social media: LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram. (You can also follow Noah Robinson himself on Twitter or LinkedIn, where he shares some of the interesting work he is doing in the area of mental health and addictions using virtual reality.)

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