By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Since he was 10 years old, Noah Robinson knew he wanted to be a psychologist.
Now, as he nears completion of his doctorate in clinical psychology at Vanderbilt University, Robinson is not only realizing that dream but also serving as Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Very Real Help. It’s a Nashville-based start-up focused on changing the way people get mental health help by combining the power of peer-based support with proven, evidence-based principles of cognitive behavioral intervention.
“We’re building a product, a platform and a clinical intervention approach,” he says in describing what he calls “cognitive behavioral immersionTM.” The approach leverages virtual worlds to provide a secure and easy way for people to access peer-led group support sessions for different mental health challenges like depression and anxiety. People can create an anonymous avatar and attend live group sessions using any device, including virtual reality.
“I want to push peer-based intervention as far as I can, to make it as close to therapy as possible” Robinson adds, noting from personal experience that “it works.”
As a teenager, he explained that he struggled with his own challenges of depression and anxiety. Robinson says he knew he was gay, but finding people with whom he could talk was a challenge until he discovered an online game named RuneScape. As described on Wikipedia, players “interact with each other through trading, chatting, or by participating in mini-games and activities, some of which are competitive or combative in nature, while others require cooperative or collaborative play.”
For Robinson, the game was just the solution that he needed but, more important, it helped form ideas about how technology might provide a valuable resource for others struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.
“Runescape was designed to help people quite literally run and escape,” he explains. “But what if we could build virtual worlds that were designed to help people confront the reasons they’re escaping in the first place?”
Using Runescape, “I was able to escape into a virtual world and get anonymous help by talking with others,” Robinson said. That opportunity to share concerns and anxiety anonymously is a critical component of the Help ClubTM solution that he is developing at Very Real Help. Two other key criteria were being able to talk to others in real time – available whenever needed – and technology-enabled.
Robinson addressed both requirements during a Post-Baccalaureate Research Fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) after graduating from the University of Maryland. The solution was VR technology.
“I bought a headset and immersed myself in a world with other real people, represented as avatars,” he explains. “That was the moment I got excited about VR as an intervention tool. Hearing real humans respond, even as avatars, is really powerful.”
At Vanderbilt, Robinson got connected with The Wond’ry which offered the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program. Subsequently, he secured a Small Business Technology Transfer award from NIH to further advance his research.
“We are currently in a Beta with about 150 individuals we have recruited through the Internet and from a large rehabilitation center,” Robinson said. In addition, he’s hosting support groups and working with gamers, explaining that there is empirical evidence that the latter group has a higher incidence of mental health issues.
“More than 50 percent of the population has a diagnosable mental health condition,” Robinson adds. “I want to get people in the process of helping themselves at a compelling starting point with a very affordable rate.”
The underlying technology is patent pending and jointly owned by Very Real Help and Vanderbilt.
If everything goes as planned, a business-to-consumer version of his product will be available by summer, targeted towards gamers with depression and anxiety, with a business-to-business version available next year including the ability to white label it.