Support In Virtual Reality – Try It and You May Like It

Support In Virtual Reality – Try It and You May Like It

By April Wilson Smith, MPH

Are you someone who avoids “support groups” at all costs?  Do you hate technology?  Or both?  Lots of people approach our Virtual Reality (VR) Peer Support Groups with some misgivings, but everyone who has tried our VR Support loves it.  If you want to know why before you give it a try, here you go. 



  1. VR is TRULY ANONYMOUS  

Unlike support groups in person or on Zoom, you are actually anonymous in VR.  You pick your own avatar, which can look like you… or not.  You can choose any name you want.  You can even mask your voice so there’s no way you can be recognized.  Even if a family member, friend, coworker, or neighbor was sitting next to you in our VR Peer Support Room, they would have no idea it was you.   

That is only one of many reasons why our patients feel so comfortable in VR.  Without fear that someone will know who you are and what you share, you can speak as openly as you like.  



  1. Tech support when you need it.

It can take a little time to get used to a new technology.  That’s why North-Star Care staff will work with you one-on-one to get you comfy in Virtual Reality.  When you sign on with us, your personal VR Guide will spend time with you individually to show you around and make sure you have all your questions answered.  You can also count on our staff to provide tech support once you are in our VR peer support room.  You’re never alone. 



  1. There are no drunkalogues.   

If you’ve been to a traditional support group meeting, you may have heard people tell long stories about their past drinking.  Some people identify with these, but many just find them boring or uncomfortable.  At North-Star Care, we focus on the present and the future.  If you want to share about your past, you are welcome to, but no one is ever expected to “qualify” or talk about why they decided to seek treatment.  Your past is no one’s business but your own.  Our discussions revolve around what is going on in our lives as we change our relationship with alcohol.  



  1.  Our topics are interesting.  

We discuss topics that have to do with your life, right here, right now.  Relationships, family, parenting, setting your own goals, coping skills.  These are just a few examples of things we discuss in VR support.  We do not read from a tired old book or go through moralistic steps.  We talk about what is going on, and patients often suggest the topic.   



  1. You never have to share. 

Sharing at VR group support meetings is strictly optional.  If you want to pitch in, you’re always welcome to, but you can also just listen.  There is never any pressure to talk.  



  1.  The format varies. 

Whether it’s a discussion about parenting, a round robin about new coping skills you’ve learned, or an open mic night, the format changes from meeting to meeting.  If one meeting doesn’t quite suit you, there are plenty of others to try.  



  1.  Meetings are facilitated by trained, professional facilitators. 

Have you ever been to a support group and wondered precisely what rock the facilitator crawled out from under?  At North-Star Care, professional Peer Guides facilitate Peer Support Groups, so you never have to worry that the meeting will ramble or spiral out of control.  



  1. The environment is beautiful, relaxing and inviting. 

Do you ever just want to get away for a little while?  With Virtual Reality, you can.  Whether we’re meeting in the Peer Support Group meeting room with its view of the southwestern landscape, the rooftop looking out on the city at night, or the island with dolphins jumping and little crabs scurrying by, the surround sound environment of VR transports you to another place.  You can shut out the hustle and bustle of your daily life and go to a place specifically designed for healing.   



  1.  You don’t have to put on makeup or get dressed.  

Unlike Zoom meetings, you never have to worry about how you look on camera.  You show up in the avatar you design and present yourself however you like. You can pick an avatar that resembles you in the real world, or one that doesn’t look like you at all.  You can have blue hair or no hair, try on glasses or green eyes.  Instead of staring at yourself on camera and worrying if your face looks fat, you can focus on the discussion and your fellow group members. 



  1. You’re always in control.  

Our patients love our VR Support Groups. They are a great place to meet people, bounce around ideas, and share in a non-judgmental, pressure-free environment.  But if you’re not feeling at home one day, or just need to do something else, you can always exit to the lobby and turn off your headset.  Unlike real world meetings where you’re trapped unless you make a grand exit, in VR, it’s as simple as turning off your headset.  Your North-Star Care Peer Guides understand that life happens, and that in treatment you sometimes need to just unplug.  If you need to step out, it’s not a problem.   



Many of us thought VR Support Meetings would be awkward, impersonal, and just plain weird.  We’ve found that getting together in this anonymous space, in avatars that we choose, gives us the ability to share openly and really relax into the discussion.  Our staff is always available to guide patients through any technical difficulties.  We know you’ll love getting to know Peer Guides and fellow patients in VR!   

April Wilson Smith, MHP

April Wilson Smith, MHP

April Wilson Smith, MPH, is the Director of the Peer Guide Program for North Star Care, an innovative health care company that provides telehealth harm reduction-based treatment for people with alcohol use disorder. She is a longtime member and former director of organizational development for Harm Reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support (HAMS), a 10,000 member worldwide, online group of people who want to change their drinking. She holds a Masters in public health from Thomas Jefferson University and presented her thesis work at the Harm Reduction Coalition’s 2016 national meeting.