Nashville-based mental health platform Innerworld was inspired by its more addictive immersive game counterparts, like World of Warcraft, RuneScape or Club Penguin.
Founder and CEO Noah Robinson, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University, helped create the concept of cognitive behavioral immersion — applying cognitive behavioral therapy principals to a virtual world.
Innerworld, founded in 2018 and supported by The Wond’ry innovation center at Vanderbilt University, has garnered some attention in 2023. The company recently received $2 million from the National Institute of Mental Health to further study Innerworld’s effects on depression. Preliminary studies on cognitive behavioral therapy showed positive effects on those in recovery from substance use disorders as well as improvement in depression and anxiety symptoms for users. The company received a $300,000 small business investment from Launch Tennessee in September, and earlier this year, recording artist and founder of the Inspiring Children Foundation Jewel signed on as co-founder and chief strategy officer.
The National Institute of Mental Health-backed study could be a breakthrough for the company, Robinson tells the Post. A randomized control trial can prove if Innerworld is causing the decrease in symptoms Robinson and his team observed, with hopes of proving clinical effects and eventually seeing services covered by insurance companies. The app is free, with a premium option for $15 per month.
Innerworld is a metaverse, a virtual space with trained guides overlooking support groups of 30 people with a shared experience. It can be accessed via a computer or phone application, with optional use of a virtual reality headset. There are rooms targeted toward depression, anxiety, chronic illness, ADHD and autism, as well as parents groups, LGBT groups and men’s and women’s groups. There are separate rooms for teenage participants, too.
The guides are not therapists but are trained in cognitive behavioral therapy tenants to moderate conversations that allow for peer-to-peer support, Robinson said. He sees it as a way to address a shortage of therapists coupled with growing national rates of depression and suicide.
“It took a pandemic to get therapists to use Zoom, which is fantastic,” Robinson said. “But video chat isn’t solving the problem, it’s just changing the way in which therapists are seeing patients. We need to tap into a larger workforce of individuals who are able to deliver evidence-based care.”
Robinson found solace in gaming as a teen, logging more than 10,000 hours in a multiplayer game called RuneScape. He was able to escape feelings of anxiety and depression as he came to terms with his sexuality — which saved his life, he said. He came out to his RuneScape clan before his friends and family.
“People feel more comfortable opening up because they’re an avatar with a username but they still have that benefit of feeling like they’re connected to one another,” he said. “I didn’t tell my world-renowned psychiatrist that I was seeing that I was gay, but I did tell this community of cartoonish avatars because I felt more comfortable in that space.”
The anonymity is key to Innerworld, Robinson said, and there is not an option for those who chat in Innerworld to link up offline. Guides shut down talks of politics, religion, substance use and medical advice.
He points out that psychologists help video game designers make games more addictive by adding features like infinite scrolling or auto play. In Innerworld, there is a finite end to meetings, and the guides will intervene if people are spending too much time on the interface.
Innerworld is not to replace therapy but could supplement it, Robinson said. It’s available 24/7 and a fraction of the price.
“It’s about humans connecting with each other and sharing their most vulnerable automatic negative thoughts,” he said. “Once they get to that point, they can learn tools to heal and overcome their struggles. This is all a means to that end — getting to people to share what’s going on in their life and then see and learn tools to make real changes in the real world.”