One of the most exciting things about our society openly embracing conversations around mental health is witnessing the innovation of our care models for those who seek and deserve it. While I’m a big believer in talk therapy, I don’t believe talk therapy should be the only treatment modality we champion for support. 

Throughout my career, I’ve had the joy and privilege of facilitating wellness circles for adolescents of color. I love working with groups because it allows those in attendance to realize they’re not alone in their journey and struggles, provides peer affirmation in their experiences, and allows them to learn from one another. 

When I came across Hero Journey Club, a service that provides emotional support while letting people play their favorite games during their conversations, I couldn’t wait to learn more! 

Below, meet Brian Chhor, CEO and Co-Founder, and Derrick Hull, Chief Clinical Officer. I had the opportunity to chat with them both and learn more about the why and how of Hero Journey Club. Check out below!

What is Hero Journey Club?

Brian: Hero Journey Club provides mental health support groups inside games like Animal Crossing, Minecraft, Roblox, Stardew Valley, and a broad range of games. The whole premise is that we take therapy out of the clinic and into spaces where people spend time. Our sessions are facilitated by Journey Guides. Our Journey Guides are, Masters or Doctorate level clinicians in social work, marriage & family therapy, counseling, clinical psychology, etc., who deliver subclinical support. They do not treat or diagnose, and Hero Journey Club is not a replacement for therapy. If therapy is like Kinesiology or physical therapy, think of Hero Journey Club like SoulCycle, Peloton, or CrossFit, where you go to work on yourself and get better. It's anchored on the group itself, not on a treatment path. 

While our Journey Guides are not treating or diagnosing, everything we do is anchored in evidence-based practices. Individuals are matched into groups based on how they respond to certain questions within the application. Once placed, groups meet at the same time and day once a week for 80 minutes with the same group of people over Discord audio. Group members are encouraged to take ownership of their journey and to discontinue sessions once they feel ready.

Our mission is to make it possible for people to get the care they need, in the places that feel most comfortable to them, where support is less clinical and less pathologizing. They’re just humans working on their own journey.

How do you go about matching people? 

Brian: There's something about finding ways to connect people around the things they care about that matters a lot; a lot of nuance goes into it. Someone can be placed in a group because they indicated that they like one specific anime, but they don't like another particular kind of anime. Within our Discord, we’ve set up different guilds, or servers. We first match people to a guild and then from the guild, they’ll be matched with their group. We have a wide range of guilds that span across ages and games. Some guilds are more cozy core, others play a wide range of games. Some guilds are middle-aged women; others skew younger. It’s all based on the information included in their application. 

How is Discord used? 

Brian: Outside of hosting the sessions, we have moderation, crisis management, and other pipelines set up to allow our moderation team to go in and quickly see what’s happening across the board. We have crisis de-escalation and routing; we have isolation if folks are in immediate crisis where we can quarantine them and get them the support they need. Everything in our back-end is HIPPA compliant and secured because we built the system ourselves. We’re very proud that people tell us that we are the kindest place on the internet they’ve come across.

How are sessions run? 

Brian: Journey Guides will do a quick check-in at the top of the session; in the very beginning, there are intros but once the group is established, there’s a check-in on how the week’s been going for our group members. That helps our Journey Guides contextualize the support in whatever is happening in real life. From there, the group will pick a theme they want to work on. The Journey Guide may share some resources such as a tool, video, or worksheet centered around the theme. If the group is really familiar with one another, they might go around sharing their stories and members will jump in to validate or share their own. As this is happening, they're in a game doing other stuff as well. At the end of the 80 minutes, they wrap up with intention. 

How does gaming come in? 

Brian: It varies. In the beginning, we didn't do a ton of gaming because we found that people actually wanted to do their own thing. They’d play Apex or Elder Ring or Stardew Valley while in session and that was fine for them. 

In the last year or so, we’ve had new groups where we’re shifting more towards built-in activities within games. So in Minecraft, we've built gigantic worlds that may represent grief and anxiety and other simulations that support stress management and we can talk about why someone raised their voice when they got stressed in the game, and how else does that show up. We also have people in our community who are neurodivergent who created a Dungeon and Dragons game to talk about their feelings and emotions using principles from internal family systems to navigate that as someone who is autistic. 

In games like Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley that are more mellow, there are activities that we’ve built that are more generalized. It might look like let’s create a hut that represents your inner child, or, instead of tracking your emotions in a journal, let’s track your emotions in a plot of land with flowers. You can look at your flower garden and say the blue flowers represent when I was feeling down, the red ones when I was excited and you can quickly see what you were feeling in the last month or so. 

Derrick: One of the things we measure when individuals sign up is problematic gaming, which is playing games to the point where it may negatively impact daily responsibilities such as relationships, work, and one’s health. We measure this to ensure engagement in our groups remains at a healthy level. There are two things we’ve found that are important and interesting: One is the rates of problem gaming are very low - less than 2% of individuals who’ve signed up for the program. Secondly, and in support of the hypothesis that problematic gaming is an effect and not a cause of mental health challenges, is that as individuals improve in terms of their symptoms and how well they are functioning we also see their reports of problematic gaming going down as well. There’s nice evidence that these two things swing together. 

How do you all define and consider safety? 

Through Journey Guides

Derrick: We ensure whatever techniques our Journey Guides are using are grounded in the evidence. We want clinicians there so that they can hold the space for group members. Having clinical training and clinical supervision, as our Journey Guides have, allows them the ability to not mix too much of their personal stuff into what's being shared with them. A big piece of building trust is that the folks who show up to the sessions know that there's someone in the room who can hold what they share, make sure it stays healing. We also have a lot of other safeguards in place, several enabled by bots, others based on protocols we’ve devised, to catch moments of crisis quickly and refer them to agencies and resources that help them get the support they deserve.

Brian: Ifyou game long enough, someone will say something they’ll brush off as a small comment. This is a space where you can take that small comment and actually dive into it. There's a vicarious healing that's possible by hearing other people navigate things you’ve also navigated in the past, that you might’ve not had the words for, and it's very cathartic. There's a sense of safety in knowing that you can bring whatever you need to and it'll be adequately handled by a Journey Guide.

Through Online Sessions

Derrick: We run our groups online which gives a little bit of extra buffer. I'd say we have probably seven to eight times the number of trans individuals on our platform that you see than in other treatment settings and that’s because it's hard enough to go in and present yourself to a group or a therapist. Imagine if you're still trying to figure out “How am I going to present?” Being online gives a big buffer for that. Discord is also pseudonymous, so session members are more anonymous than they would be in person and I think that builds a bit of safety as well. 

Brian: There's safety in the intentionality of joining Hero Journey Club. You’re here because you want to heal. You’re not going to pay $30 thirty dollars a week just to troll people. There's something about knowing that these people are on the same track as you.

Through Video Games

Derrick: If you've ever gone to activities or rallies or service projects with other individuals you realize there's something about having a shared mission or doing a shared activity that builds intangible bonds. That’s what I think video games have brought to Hero Journey Club. We don't have to sit in a room and stare at each other, pulling teeth to get the group going. Instead, and right now, we're going to do something together. We're coordinating our activities and working towards a shared goal in a virtual environment. That works as a kind of lubricant for building trust and connection. Then, when it does come time to talk vulnerably and get to the difficult stuff, folks already have this sense that “I'm in a group with people who have my interest in mind and who want to work towards a common goal.” 

Brian: In the game world, you can show up as whoever you want to be, there's a freedom you get. We’ve even started piloting some sessions in  Dungeons and Dragons where we ask folks to step into a role as a character they normally wouldn’t. What are the ways you want to manifest? What are the qualities that are most important to you? 

What does representation look like within Hero Journey Club? 

Derrick: We’re seeing a wide range of communities in Hero Journey Club that you typically don’t see in other services, at least not to this degree. While men are not a marginalized group, in treatment settings you’ll see about 12-15% and we have about 30% men in our sessions. About 34% of our users are people of color, 32% from the LGBTQ+ community, and 50% are neurodivergent. Now, these numbers are not typically well reported in other treatment settings. So it's hard to know exactly how it looks but in my experience, I've seen numbers rarely above 5% to 10% or so.

I think it’s amazing and I think it has to do with a mixture of how Discord connects people and how video games move across communal boundaries, something we all have in common. 

Why set your services up on Discord?

Brian: We started on Discord versus building our own tool because our whole premise is taking therapy out of the clinic and into the spaces where people spend time. We continually push that idea and ask ourselves: where do we go to them? How do we take this to them? Through Discord.

Derrick: We’re trying to create a space where people can bring their honest experience as opposed to passively consuming feeds. In a setting like Hero Journey Club, it’s the first time we hear from others that their lives aren't perfect. We have this vision in our heads that everybody's life must be perfect but mine; everybody’s got it figured out but me. I hope that the kinds of groups we run are places where people can shed these false ideas and just talk about what life is actually like.

Brian Chhor has spent the last 12 years working in digital health. He has spent most of his career thinking about ways to make care more humanizing for people going through tough moments. Brian’s career includes working in Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention, kidney care, electronic medical records, and cancer. Newer to behavioral health care, Brian began work to create a more accessible model of mental health care stemming from his upbringing and after a personal experience in which his cousin was unable to receive proper mental health care during the pandemic. Utilizing a community model, Brian’s brother set up a Discord server that allowed the family to check and provide a listening ear when their cousin needed it. 

The model originally started as a men’s group that turned into a friend salon. Thinking about the ways in which games showed up in his childhood and conversations held with barbershops in Harlem, church groups, and yoga studios, Brian realized that it’s community that helps build a sense of resiliency and connection. 

Derrick Hull, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and has been in the digital mental health space for 16 years in clinical leadership roles at companies like Talkspace and Noom. At Hero Journey Club, Derrick is responsible for ensuring the highest quality of mental health support and leads the care team. His research and experience have focused on clinically validating new modalities of care, with an emphasis on engaging underserved populations and building tools that address provider shortfall and access barriers.

His work has been published in Nature, the National Academy of Sciences, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and Oxford University Press, and featured by Forbes.com, APA Monitor, Huffington Post, LA Times, Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TIME, and TEDx. His research is supported by R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health.

To learn more about Hero Journey Club, visit herojourney.club.