Mental Health in the Metaverse

This Report was written in collaboration with James Wilford Caruana

Introduction

With the development of a new digital paradigm, Web 3.0 will change the way we socialize, interact and educate ourselves on/with the world around us. In fact, the decentralized complexion of the blockchain will have boundless potential for the evolution of a new business ethos1,2. Thus, the adoption of such an advancing and amalgamated technology will create a new bureau for treatment within mental healthcare3. 

 

In a recent study, the WHO cited that metal illnesses are the most prominent cause of disability and illness worldwide. However, in hindsight, 30 to 80 % of the people suffering diagnoses never seek newer and adapted treatment. Thus the scope of this report is to outline the potential use cases for the metaverse within the mental healthcare industry. In addition, the Report also focuses on introducing the Mind-Easy project and outlining the importance of this virtual environment as Decentraland’s first mental health clinic. 

 

Lastly, this discussion will further aim to educate its readers on the evolving nature of the metaverse and the potential avenues that its technology can create to further enhance the treatment of mental health conditions.

How Can VR and AR be applied in Meta-Mental Health?

The metaverse as a therapeutic tool has been a long and awaited discussion. Currently, numerous healthcare companies are reimagining their innovative business models in order to solve the current challenges faced within the healthcare market. Both virtual and augmented reality have been increasingly utilized for both diagnosis and treatment of conditions. Both branches of technology offer enhanced portals for virtual interaction and genuine life-like possibilities to deliver virtual counseling and therapeutic services1,2. Such a statement further argues the fact that the primary advantage of the adoption of VR simulations is their ability to replicate in person interaction in a cyber and controlled environment. Moreover, the seemingless use of this technology with real life practice can further aid in the current shortage of mental health practitioners by eliminating the necessity of physical service4,5. The remote and virtual nature of the three dimensional virtual environment can eliminate these barriers and allow for the cross border and even specialized treatment of patients. 

 

Secondly, due to its controlled and pre-described environment, the interactions which occur with the metaverse will be heightened. Professional mental health settings created within the metaverse will allow for individuals suffering from the same condition to interact from group therapy sessions   which may or may not be mediated by mental health professionals3,6–8. In addition, VR counseling allows for an interactive space in which patients can be treated in real time. Thus the creation of such virtual platforms will allow for individuals with geometrical constraints or limited access to correct sources of information due to either to disabilities or financial constraints to be catered for.

The Mind-Easy Project

Mindeasy went through many phases of development with many different shapes being tested and looked at. This process was a lengthy one with a lot of shapes being discussed as well as different metaphors for the build. Originally, the build was meant to consist of a large dome akin to the shapes of the old viking longhouses which were used to keep everyone under one roof and celebrate together with 4 protruding room areas indicated with spheres in the outer silhouette of the building. 

 

The doorway also had different natural elements that were used indicating flower petals, showing mental health in a more natural and beautiful way. This idea was used along most of the design process, with the flower petals being incorporated into many of the different initial design concepts. It was eventually scrapped once we landed the final design which was used to continue on with the build. The overall design of Mindeasy was built in a way that allows the user to see no discernable start or end to the building. Looking at the figure 8 or infinity iconography of the exterior shape, it is meant to represent the everlasting fight towards the betterment of mental health. How the scope for better mental health is a long process that has no start nor end. Like physical health issues must be tackled in the proper way, mental health issues should be treated with just as much respect and attention. The difference is that mental health can be assessed online while physical health cannot. 

 

The scope of the overall design is to be calming and soft. It makes use of warmer colours to invite the user in contrasting with a strong royal blue to better represent the brand’s aesthetic. It is also good to note that while this building moves, it makes use of many curved surfaces that are well known to be very structurally sound due to the real life implementation of a keystone. The scale-like structures attached to the sides of the walls also are meant to represent the idea of the building being a living entity. Like different animals in the world, the building has scales which organically grow and shrink to play a looping procedural animation. This idea of scales is also carried out once the user enters the interior space. The interior space is laid out at a lobby leading to the 3 different interior spaces. The walls are covered in royal blue plates with a soft look almost feeling like padded pillows covering the walls. The central area of the lobby is on a platform that is elevated from the rest of the area, separating the lobby from the lower garden and relaxation areas within the lobby space. The 3 areas at the back of the room will all serve different purposes with the most important one being the First Aid room which is the middle door of the three. 

 

The First Aid room will include the AI bot and the ai bot will drive changes into the digital space of the first aid room. This room had many different pieces of procedural animation that were developed for it to allow for these dynamically changing walls. The design philosophy used for the first aid room is similar to that of the Exterior space with this being a shape with no easily recognizable start or end. The first aid room is built as a sphere that has greenery which comes down the sides of the room to form a sort of magical forest with lights at the bottom of the area. Overall, the design for the Mindeasy building was for it to be a space that feels alive and that feels warm and inviting. With no sharp or hard edges. The whole building moves in tandem with a breathing exercise.

Superficial Animations being developed in Mind-Easy

Mindeasy has a few different animation sets that were developed to help add ambiance and aesthetics to the building. These animations don’t strictly add use to the build but they help enhance the experience on an aesthetic level which can make the experience more overall immersive.  Since Decentraland at this moment in time can only be accessed on a screen, it is not yet a fully immersive experience, adding ambiance into the building can enhance this and make it even more immersive. Different immersive animations include the addition of a waterfall animation that is present in the upper areas of the lobby. This subtle movement of running water was developed using looping path animations within blender. Another ambiance animation that was added into the lobby is the addition of a moving koi pond. This koi pond was added in to help give more life to the building interior since it is not as heavily animated as the exterior space. Adding in a semi realistic koi pond also signifies the peace and serenity that normally comes with koi ponds also taking inspiration from the spirit koi from the Avatar the airbender series. 

 

Different procedural workflows were also developed to add more character and ambiance to the exterior and first aid room spaces. Using different lines of driver animation code we were able to create a new sort of procedural animation that was specially created for mindeasy. Using a combination of geometry nodes object scattering to create scales on the exterior of the Mindeasy building and then animating the individually created scattered objects. These scattered objects are then animated using different driver sets and code to animate different parameters of the objects. These are then made to loop so that the animation is fluid and organic once they are imported into the decentraland SDK. Another animation that was added into the First aid room to add more ambiance and make the room feel more alive was the addition of fireflies. This was done by mixing multiple different particle simulations and baking these particles in as objects with keyframe transforms. The use of particles can add a lot to making the building feel more alive and add more to the natural element of the building and it is a technique that we here at metaverse architects had not made proper use of just yet. 

 

Other aesthetic animations that can be found within the building include general scale and rotation animations in the lobby, these are there to simply add in more movement into the building and to provide a sort of flow to the otherwise static building.

 

Specialized Animations developed for Mind-Easy

The first example of specialized animations that was developed for mindeasy was the organic animation on the entire exterior of the building. This animation was made to mimic general breathing exercises that are used to help treat anxiety attacks and general stress. The user is meant to inhale along with the building as the building expands and exhale as it contracts again. This growing and shrinking animation is repeated in every instance of the build as it is a calming animation that is meant to stay with the user at all times while they are reclining inside the building along with when they are running up to the property. In some instances it is simply the logo of Mindeasy that expands and contracts; in other scenarios it is more detailed with different plant elements that all do it. 

 

Another example of a specialized animation that was developed for Mindeasy is the leading path animations that are present in the First Aid room. These path animations are there to help give a visual indication to the user how they should traverse the area in the first aid room. They lead the user forward using different path animation constraints. 

 

The most specialized part of the Mindeasy building from an architectural perspective is the Dynamically changing walls within the First Aid Room. These are procedural animated panels within the walls of the First Aid room that will load in dynamically based on the answers the user gives when prompted questions by the mental health ai bot. The colours of these walls will be a result of a logic bus so that it shows a colour that will help the user come to a calm state depending on how they are feeling. This allows the user to have a totally different experience from anyone else and will have the room details tailor to their specific needs. This was achieved by creating procedural animations along the spherical walls. This was done also using a different set of variables that determines the proximity of drivers and driven objects along with calculating negative z transforms within blender. These animations can then be driven using various path animations and a series of baking actions into keyframes.

 

Clinical Impacts of the Mind-Easy Project on Mental Health within the Metaverse

Mind-Easy is a digital mental health start-up that aims to provide clinically validated  and culturally competent mental health resources. The company has recently received a full grant from Decentraland to build the first mental health clinic in the virtual space in partnership with Metaverse Architects. Mind-Easy’s vision is to create an inclusive mental health clinic in the Metaverse that will give DCL users access to the tools, videos, and resources to take charge of their mental health. This material will cover a range of mental health issues, and will be accessible to anyone in Decentraland. 

 

The clinic includes therapy spaces, sensory immersion experiences, and consciousness exploration spaces, along with peer support hubs and collaborative exercise spaces to foster a positive environment for mental health and wellbeing. This project aimed to empower users to take charge of their mental health, and prioritized the formation and development of a community which aims to support and nurture the mental health of fellow DCL community members. 

 

The primary goal was to leverage the possibilities and potential of the Metaverse to bridge the gaps in the existing mental health spaces. The clinic serves as the first step in the creation of an ecosystem for decentralized and equal distribution access to culturally validated mental health resources for all users. 

 

With the shortage of therapists and long waitlists, platforms such as Decentraland have become a golden opportunity for re-inventing mental health care access.  The clinic has the potential to assist in the transformation of unsustainable mental healthcare systems into sustainable ones. It will serve to equalize the interaction between medical experts and users, as well as deliver resources that are less expensive, quicker, and more effective. 

 

Existing research in the space suggests that features like the ability to create a custom avatar gives users the chance to create an identity that they feel comfortable with. This can be beneficial for those who suffer from social anxiety or other mental health conditions that make it difficult to interact with others in the real world. The digital space provides a sense of connectedness during periods of loneliness, disconnection, and social rejection. The use of virtual spaces has also shown to increase the likelihood of help-seeking behavior and conversations due to the nature of its confidential and safe environment. Projects such as the Mind-Easy clinic are expected to increase perception of one’s control over their own mental well-being while also reducing overall stigma around mental health within the community. 

 

conclusion

Numerous healthcare companies are developing innovative business models in the metaverse in order to solve present challenges. The metaverse offers consumers the opportunity to make therapy sessions more immersive by acting as an amalgm of its human counterpart. As VR headsets increase in popularity, their use as an essential therapeutic tool will also increase, providing a more aesthetically pleasing and engaging experience when compared to traditional telemedicine and Web 2 portals. 

 

Metaverse platforms have the scope to provide an equitable and person-centric environment for users to engage with mental well-being in a way that is actually beneficial to them, allowing innovators and health-care professionals to make cultural competence the minimum standard in the intersection of mental health and the metaverse, since that hasn’t been done in reality! 

 

Watch Metaverse Architects Podcast Featuring Alexandra Assouad, Co-Founder of Mind-Easy 

References

(1)  Emmelkamp, P. M. G.; Meyerbröker, K. Virtual Reality Therapy in Mental Health. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-081219-115923 2021, 17, 495–519. https://doi.org/10.1146/ANNUREV-CLINPSY-081219-115923. 


(2)  Freeman, D.; Reeve, S.; Robinson, A.; Ehlers, A.; Clark, D.; Spanlang, B.; Slater, M. Virtual Reality in the Assessment, Understanding, and Treatment of Mental Health Disorders. Psychol. Med. 2017, 47 (14), 2393–2400. https://doi.org/10.1017/S003329171700040X. 


(3)  Usmani, S. S.; Sharath, M.; Mehendale, M. Future of Mental Health in the Metaverse. Gen. Psychiatry 2022, 35 (4), e100825. https://doi.org/10.1136/GPSYCH-2022-100825. 


(4)  Mann, S.; Furness, T.; Yuan, Y.; Iorio, J.; Wang, Z. All Reality: Virtual, Augmented, Mixed (X), Mediated (X,Y), and Multimediated Reality. J. Public Health (Bangkok). 2018. 


(5)  Srivastava, K.; Das, R. C.; Chaudhury, S. Virtual Reality Applications in Mental Health: Challenges and Perspectives. Ind. Psychiatry J. 2014, 23 (2), 83. https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-6748.151666. 


(6)  Gregg, L.; Tarrier, N. Virtual Reality in Mental Health. A Review of the Literature. Soc. Psychiatry Psychiatr. Epidemiol. 2007, 42 (5), 343–354. https://doi.org/10.1007/S00127-007-0173-4/FIGURES/2. 


(7)  Anderson, P. L.; Zimand, E.; Hodges, L. F.; Rothbaum, B. O. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Public-Speaking Anxiety Using Virtual Reality for Exposure. Depr Anxiety 2005, 22 (3), 156–158. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.20090. 


(8)  Marzaleh, M. A.; Peyravi, M.; Shaygani, F. A Revolution in Health: Opportunities and Challenges of the Metaverse. EXCLI J. 2022, 21, 791. https://doi.org/10.17179/EXCLI2022-5017. 

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