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How a virtual sanctuary helps bridge mental health gaps for vets

Noah Robinson knows the feeling of experiencing mental pain and not having an outlet to release his frustrations.

Having realized he was gay when he was 13 years old, Robinson was unsure how to share that news with his family and friends. He found solace through an online game called RuneScape, where he played under the guise of a human avatar in a different world, a cyber sanctuary of sorts. He grew so comfortable with the platform and the people that he played as, that eventually he felt comfortable enough to come out to a community that accepted him.

“I was so depressed that I was contemplating suicide and was escaping into this virtual world where I had a community … and was anonymous. It kept me going and saved my life,” said Robinson, now 32. “I spent almost 10,000 hours playing that game from the ages of 13 to 18. Having that experience of being at the brink of being in so much pain, thinking ‘this is the end,’ then finding an anonymous online community — I wondered what if we could actually build something that’s designed by psychologists and experts to come back to reality, and feel more empowered than when they left it?”

These thoughts spurred the creation of Innerworld, an innovative virtual mental health platform that Robinson co-founded with Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and mental health advocate Jewel.

The battles with depression and feelings of suicide that Robinson experienced as a youth mirrors the experience of many veterans who suffer mental health issues from their time in the military after transitioning into civilian life.

For Robinson, his personal battle has merged with his professional calling. On March 11, Innerworld rolled out across six Veterans Administrations medical centers and Veterans Care Health Systems.

The platform will provide veterans with 24/7 free access to mental health tools and resources through anonymous peer-to-peer support via self-created avatars, who are led by guides trained in cognitive behavioral immersion (CBI), a form of psychological intervention that Robinson developed. The intervention has been demonstrated effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse.

Users can access the Innerworld app via phone, computer or Meta VR headsets. The platform recently received a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to continue research on tools to help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“We are honored to collaborate with the Department of Veterans Affairs in this transformative endeavor,” Robinson said. “This collaboration comes at a pivotal time, as we face high rates of veteran suicide. Our platform provides a virtual sanctuary where all veterans can connect, share experiences and receive the support and tools they need and deserve, regardless of time or location.”

While veterans can access the site whenever they feel the need, Robinson also schedules panels with mental health experts who speak with him and the veterans in attendance. During a recent panel on YouTube, veterans spoke freely with Robinson and the guest expert.

“I think that sense of presence they have with one another as avatars is like sharing us being around a campfire,” Robinson said. “They are still able to feel that camaraderie and be part of a family and feel like they’re connected to one in another in a virtual world.”

Veterans who have experienced mental health issues and struggled to find an effective avenue to help deal with them have been pleased with the Innerworld way of helping veterans get through their issues.

A 13-year combat veteran that goes under the avatar name of Cogit8 says of the system: “Having some struggles of my own, the VA struggles to maintain a mental health platform that can help everyone in its system. When I came here to Innerworld, everyone here was really non-judgmental. Nobody really knows who I am.”

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