Jewel’s Got a New Title To Take On Mental Health—In the Metaverse
After working for two decades in mental health advocacy, the Grammy-nominated singer makes a major announcement about a new collaboration.
The singer Jewel is already a multi-hyphenate. She’s a New York Times best-selling author, actress, and a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter (not to mention the powerful National Anthem she delivered at Sunday night’s NBA All-Star game). Today, Jewel has also been announced as the Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of the mental health and wellness platform Innerworld, where people can immerse themselves in social virtual worlds by interacting as anonymous avatars to get the mental health support they need—all in the metaverse.
As co-chair of the non-profit Inspiring Children’s Foundation (which helps at-risk youth), Jewel has been working in the mental health space for over two decades while on her own journey of healing from abuse and homelessness in her early years. In an interview along with Innerworld’s CEO Noah Robinson, MSc, who is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate, last week Jewel opened up to The Healthy @Reader’s Digest about her past struggles, finding mental health support, and how Innerworld is using technology to scale their reach in helping millions more. This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
The Healthy @Readers Digest: Jewel, you’ve been working on mental health initiatives over the years. Can you tell us a little bit about Innerworld and what drew you to it?
Jewel: Growing up and moving out at 15, I was one of those kids that fell through the cracks. When we did the math on if everybody who needed mental health care would seek it, there’s probably going to be about a five-million-therapist-deficit in America alone. And access to mental health care therapy specifically is really difficult, especially in really dense urban areas.
The Healthy: A lot of people can’t find therapists right now because there aren’t enough available, or they don’t have the resources to get one.
Jewel: VR [virtual reality] is really designed to work incredibly well in this mental health space. I was doing my due diligence and found Noah and we decided to join forces.
The Healthy: Noah, Can you tell me a little bit about your past and what helped you in your mental health journey that led you to launch Innerworld?
Noah: When I was 13, I realized I was gay and became very depressed and anxious thinking about the idea of coming out. I basically escaped into a virtual game, it was called RuneScape, similar to World of Warcraft. I was depressed in the real world, but in the virtual world, I had a community. And ultimately, it ended up saving my life. Eventually, I was able to come out of the closet to my clan, because I felt more comfortable with the anonymity and their positive response empowered me to come out in the real world.
That experience led me to think: What if we could actually build something that was designed to have people come back to reality more empowered than they left it? What if we could teach them tools to overcome their mental health issues?
The Healthy: Jewel, you’ve been very open about your past struggles with homelessness and abuse before, as a mental health advocate for years. What helped you with your mental health struggles early on?
Jewel: I moved out at 15, because I was in an abusive environment and felt like striking out on my own would be healthier for me. I did, however, know that it was a very dangerous thing I was doing, and that statistically, kids like me end up repeating the cycle. And I didn’t want to be a statistic. I had an emotional inheritance that would predispose me to cycles of abuse and addiction. And once I identified that, I knew that I needed to teach myself a new emotional language. I was having panic attacks, agoraphobia. I’d learned to meditate, but it alone wasn’t changing my life. And I kept reverting to these old habits. I needed to build new habits.
The Healthy: Noah, there are so many different therapy modalities. You have developed what you call “cognitive behavioral immersion” that you use on the platform. Can you explain what that is compared to cognitive behavioral therapy and other approaches?
Noah: Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form that is designed to teach you tools that you can use outside of the therapy sessions to overcome different mental health problems that you might have. Oftentimes, someone seeks therapy because they’re feeling depressed or anxious, and cognitive behavioral therapy will focus on helping people examine their beliefs, to see if they’re true, or change their behaviors to try something, a new approach. And those are ways to indirectly improve our feelings, because we can’t just decide not to feel depressed or anxious. What cognitive behavioral immersion adds on top of that, is changing our environment by bringing someone into a 3D virtual environment where they can learn these tools and interact with peers and get that support. By changing the environment, we can change the context of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and basically learn these tools and then come back to reality, back to the real world, and apply these tools to feel better.
Jewel: There’s a live guide, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And so you can talk to the guide and say, “My dog died, I’m really, really bereft and really triggering, and do you have anything you recommend?”
The guide can pull up a visual aid of the grief cycle, for instance, and just talk about the grief cycle and how it’s a wave and how there’s intense phases, but those phases release. We’re also seeing incredible results for people with social anxiety who haven’t been out of the house in years.
The Healthy: That’s incredible. Another big trend in the mental health space is journaling right now. Would you say that song writing was an early outlet for you?
Jewel: Yeah, I started journaling and writing poetry when I was very young. I was in a lot of pain. And I noticed that when I wrote, it took the edge off of that pain, it made it somewhat manageable. And I learned that by going toward the pain, it gave me relief. And then when I tried to avoid the pain, it was almost impossible. That was definitely the beginning of—the word “mindfulness” wasn’t around then—but that was definitely the beginning of my mindfulness journey. And in Innerworld, we have a lot of writing exercises. What we find in my foundation, too, is that people are very capable, if they’re given some guidance of, they’re going to be the best healer of themselves.
The Healthy: And the anonymity of Innerworld really helps, too.
Jewel: I think the anonymity in VR, it’s so powerful. What’s interesting is we had a lot of male adoption, which men notoriously seek mental health much less. There’s a much harder time getting men to seek help. And yet, our numbers are actually really high in Innerworld. And I believe it’s because of the anonymity.
Noah: Fifty-five percent of our users are men, which we’re really excited about, because men traditionally don’t seek mental health intervention. And so we destigmatize that element. When coming into this environment, it’s designed for empathy, because everyone is supportive, and people don’t know who you are, they can’t see your real face, you can choose how you appear and express yourself, it really creates this safe space.
The Healthy: Jewel, how did becoming a mother affect your interest in mental health and wanting to break the generational trauma that you had experienced?
Jewel: I wanted to heal myself, from a very young age, I was very stubborn about it, I was determined to have a happy life. And I’m really glad I did so much healing prior to being a mom. And then when I became a mom, old wounds [came up] and things that you didn’t have a chance to, or even know that you should look at. And so I’m really glad I had the muscle of loving to grow and dig in that way. Because it definitely inspires you to do more. And I learned to teach my son skills that I lacked and for the future of Innerworld I want it to become an educational platform.
The Healthy: I’ve noticed mental health is still a strange taboo but it’s becoming less and less so as people share their stories. What’s been the response you’ve received from being a public voice in mental health?
Jewel: For me early on in my career, I realized that when I told the truth, it was much more powerful than when I tried to hide the truth. And so I made a career of leading with vulnerability. But it really wasn’t a risk, because living a lie is very stressful. And leading with the truth gave people an opportunity to connect with me and for me to connect with them in an authentic way, which I was desperate for: real connection. What I realized is that we all have anxieties and stresses and triggers. And so I’m glad that the world is in a place now where talking about it is much more acceptable. If we’re not offering scalable, proven tools that work for everybody, no matter their socio economic background, we’re failing.