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.)

Breakroom Special Event on July 7th, 2021: Dr. Jeevan Perera, Dr. Walter Greenleaf, and Dr. Stephen Goldberg Speak About Mental Health in the Workplace

On Wednesday, July 7th, 2021 at 10:00 a.m. PST/6:00 p.m. BST, please join the following guest speakers in Sinewave Entertainment’s Breakroom (the corporate cousin of their social VR/virtual world platform Sinespace), who will be speaking on the topic, The Coping Strategies Astronauts Use for Working in Isolation, and How to Apply Them in the Workplace:

  • Dr. Jeevan Perera, an aerospace engineer with the U.S. space program;
  • Dr. Walter Greenleaf, a neuroscientist at Stanford University; and
  • Dr. Stephen Goldberg, a psychiatrist with the Mental Health Association, Maryland.

Here’s a brief description of the talk:

With increased numbers of companies adopting hybrid/remote work models, employee well-being and mental health are fast becoming top priorities as companies race to adapt to this new working environment. So, who better to turn to for guidance than the ultimate remote workers – astronauts!

Join us on Mars, in Breakroom’s virtual world, for a free virtual event featuring some of the world’s leading authorities on mental health to discuss the impact of isolation and remote working on employee wellbeing. Hear from Dr. Jeevan Perera from the US space program, who will share his experience managing risk for large, crewed missions and discuss how astronauts prepare for long periods of isolation and their steps to protect their mental health, and how to apply them in the workplace. Dr. Walter Greenleaf, a neuroscientist from Stanford University, and Dr. Stephen Goldberg, a psychiatrist, will join Dr. Perera to discuss mental health in the workplace, its potential impact, and what companies can do to support employee well-being.  

With a large chunk of the workforce still working from home (many, like me, in self-isolation) during the current coronavirus pandemic, this event promises to be both timely and pertinent!

After all, astronauts are the ultimate in remote workers!

You can register for the event here; you will receive an email with instructions on how to access the event, accessing a special Mars world in Breakroom using your web browser (you won’t need to download a client program). See you there!

The Mars world in Breakroom, where the event will take place

This blogpost is sponsored by Sinespace, and was written in my role as an embedded reporter for this virtual world (more details here). 

UPDATED! Pandemic Diary, May 6th, 2021: Dumpster Fire

Among the news which my Twitter feed offers up today is this raging dumpster fire in the Osborne Village neighbourhood of my home city of Winnipeg:

Dumpster Fire, Osborne Village

Somehow, a dumpster fire is an apt metaphor for the state of my life lately, on Day 417 since I began working from home in self-isolation for my university library system.

Manitoba now has the third highest per-capita rate of COVID-19 infections in Canada (after Alberta and Ontario), and experts are saying that we will soon have to implement a third lockdown to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system here.

Personal visits to other private households, indoors or outdoors, have already been forbidden. I only leave my apartment to go to work at my closed library on Mondays, to do some collection weeding, and to pick up the groceries I have ordered via the Walmart website every 2 to 3 weeks. I am weary of the restrictions, but it looks like it’s going to be this way for at least another 3 to 6 months. I am not due for my second shot of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine until July.

I have not had a hug for fourteen months, people. It is starting to really wear on me.

The medications I am taking to control my blood sugar are no longer working as well as they used to, so my family doctor has put me on injectable insulin for the first time. It has been extremely frustrating to try and figure out what the optimal dosage of insulin should be, and we are still trying to figure that out. My blood sugar has been consistently high this past month, and it worries me greatly. I know I need to lose weight, but it just feels so impossible what with everything else going on.

On top of all this, my psychiatrist is considering leaving Winnipeg to accept a position in British Columbia, and neither she nor my family doctor know if they can find a new psychiatrist to take me on as a patient. The current pandemic has led to a extreme shortage of mental health professionals in Manitoba, at a time when so many people are struggling with anxiety and depression. It is, quite simply, the worst possible time to lose my psychiatrist.

Because of these and other worries, I must confess that my productivity has taken a nosedive. I’m having trouble getting anything done. I tell myself that things aren’t normal, that it’s normal to feel this way in the middle of a pandemic. But somehow today it doesn’t really help.

Today is just a dumpster fire, and I wish I had a few more buckets of water to put it out.

UPDATE May 7th, 2021: This evening, Manitoba’s chief public health officer ordered, among other things, that all galleries, museums, and libraries must close. So I won’t be going in to work on Monday after all. Given the sharp increase in COVID-19 infections in Manitoba this week, this is not a surprise to me.

Pandemic Diary, February 2nd, 2021: Groundhog Day, Murder, RuPaul, and Yearly Beloved

Today is officially Day 324 since I first began working in self-isolation from my apartment for my university library system, and frankly, I think I am starting to lose it.

I am finding it hard to get out of bed, hard to get moving, and hard to get any productive work done (despite looming deadlines). And I am feeling inordinately cranky, tired, and just absolutely, positively FED. UP. with dealing with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and all of its consequences, both anticipated and unexpected.

My mental health has been taking a dreadful beating over these past few weeks in lockdown, and I am ready to scream myself hoarse and shake my puny fist at the universe. And YES, I most certainly will use this blog as my soapbox, to vent my frustration! (Better than keeping it bottled up inside…and we’ll return to my regular reporting on social VR and virtual worlds with the next blogpost, I promise! Thanks.)

An article in today’s National Post newspaper sums it up quite nicely:

Nearly three decades after its premiere, the 1993 movie Groundhog Day has reached a new level of relevance under COVID-19. The world’s locked-down, working-from-home millions often report that they feel trapped in the movie’s plotline of an unending, inescapable time loop. “It does have this feeling like we’ve done this before. We’ve been here before. There’s nothing new on the horizon,” psychologist Steve Joordens told the Canadian Press last week.

Now, I must confess that I have never actually watched the movie Groundhog Day from beginning to end (not being a particular fan of Bill Murray, either the actor or the man). Perhaps it’s time to add it to my Netflix viewing queue. What I have been watching in the evenings are two long-running murder mystery television series, one Canadian and one British.

Murdoch Mysteries (CBC website, Wikipedia) is a popular, long-running CBC TV drama set in Toronto during the late 1890s and early 1900s, which has just been renewed for its 14th season in 2021. I have access to the first 13 seasons on Netflix, and I am currently binge-watching season 7.

The lead investigator, William Murdoch, has a scientific bent, and often finds ways to incorporate newfangled inventions and technologies (e.g. X-rays) into his sleuthing, assisted by the highly capable coroner Dr. Julia Odgen, who is William’s off-again, on-again love interest throughout the series. (I peeked ahead, and yes, William and Julia do finally land up together…at least, by the end of season 13! We’ll see what happens during season 14…)

The other murder mystery series that is currently keeping me somewhat sane and entertained in lockdown is the venerable Midsomer Murders (ITV website, Wikipedia), which started in 1997 and is is now the U.K.’s longest-running contemporary detective drama at 22 seasons long! (Mind you, British TV seasons tend to be much shorter than North American ones.) I am currently watching season 8 on Amazon Prime Video.

Now, I do find some of the murders and their resolutions, in some of the episodes of Midsomer Murders, to be a bit contrived, but I quite enjoy the characters, especially the lead investigator, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (played by the wonderful John Nettles), as he sorts out the suspicious deaths which take place in the many small countryside villages located in the fictional English county of Midsomer. Also, I am a big fan of picturesque English villages and cozy village murder mysteries! I treat every episode like a mini-vacation in England.

And, of course, I am also greedily consuming every. single. crumb. from season 13 of RuPaul’s Drag Race—I even watch Untucked! to get more of the behind-the-scenes drama! I’m also watching season 2 of RuPaul’s Drag Race U.K., which has seen some jaw-dropping eliminations of drag queens every week. I quite regularly pop into in the subReddits for both shows, chatting and kiki-ing with other fans, who discuss all the twists and turns in these reality TV shows. (I catch both these shows through a streaming subscription to OUTtvGo, Canada’s LGBTQ television network, easily the best CA$39.99 a year I have ever spent!)

I am just completely fed up with living under a code-red, province-wide pandemic lockdown, so I was more than ready to enjoy a brand-new comedy special I watched this evening on Amazon Prime Video, which left me with a great big grin on my face, called Yearly Departed, in which a succession of female comedians give eulogies to various things we lost in 2020: rich girl Instagram influencers, pants, casual sex…

If you are as fed up as I am, you might find Yearly Departed to be just the tonic you need to help you grieve and process your pandemic-induced losses! Be sure to watch until the end for a special surprise guest, plus a mini making-of coda! Highly recommended viewing.

Stay safe and stay healthy!