Virtual reality has moved beyond gaming and is an emerging technology in the treatment of schizophrenia and potentially in shaping the portrayal of this mental health condition for younger generations.
Host Rachel Star Withers, a person living with schizophrenia, and cohost Gabe Howard explore how virtual reality technologies are used to help people with schizophrenia.
Deepak Gopalakrishna, the founder and CEO of virtual reality therapy platform Rey, joins to share how Rey is revolutionizing exposure therapy for people with anxiety, PTSD, depression, and schizophrenia.
And later in the show, Barry Gene Murphy and May Abdalla, the producers of “Goliath: Playing with Reality,” share the inspiration behind their new award-winning virtual reality movie. “Goliath: Playing with Reality” is the true story of a man’s experience with schizophrenia, and is narrated by Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton.
Deepak Gopalakrishna, the founder and CEO of Rey, is a highly accomplished customer-centric innovator. A seasoned entrepreneur with deep expertise in healthcare, AI, blockchain and digital innovation, he has founded and led the growth of seven companies.
With an MBA and a doctorate in genetics and Molecular biology, Deepak has the unique ability to merge the rigor of a scientist with the creativity of an entrepreneur. The vision for Rey was born: Take the best mental health clinicians in the world and transfer their methodologies into user-friendly automated digital treatments. You can find out more at www.getrey.com.
May Abdalla, the co-director, writer, and executive producer of “Goliath: Playing with Reality,” is an experimental documentary filmmaker who has won numerous awards for her work in the immersive and interactive arts. She founded the production company Anagram in 2013 to explore immersive technologies, especially in the documentary genre.
Barry Gene Murphy, the director and writer of “Goliath: Playing with Reality,” is an award-winning filmmaker and artist with over 15 years’ experience in animation, 3D and special effects, and more recently in mixed-reality works.
Goliath: Playing with Reality is Available to download for FREE on Oculus now:
Rachel Star Withers creates videos documenting her schizophrenia, ways to manage and let others like her know they are not alone and can still live an amazing life. She has written Lil Broken Star: Understanding Schizophrenia for Kids and a tool for schizophrenics, To See in the Dark: Hallucination and Delusion Journal. Fun Fact: She has wrestled alligators.
To learn more about Rachel, please visit her website, RachelStarLive.com.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Schizophrenia. Hosted by Rachel Star Withers, an advocate who lives openly with Schizophrenia. We’re talking to experts about all aspects of life with this condition. Welcome to the show!
Rachel Star Withers: Welcome to Inside Schizophrenia, a Healthline Media podcast, I’m your host, Rachel Star Withers here with my incredible co-host Gabe Howard, and this episode of Inside Schizophrenia is sponsored by Intra-Cellular Therapies.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, it’s always great to be here. Thank you, as always, for having me.
Rachel Star Withers: And, Gabe, last episode, we talked about technology. Our wonderful tech world, and this isn’t really a part two, but maybe a little bit we’re going to get a little bit deeper into a certain type of tech. Let me tell you, Gabe, we are living in the future. It’s time to upgrade. So I’m pretty excited because today we’re talking about virtual reality.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, I was not a fan of this topic. First off, virtual reality, I just I have this very 1990s version of virtual reality where it just wasn’t very good. And number two, I really struggled to see the application for the treatment of schizophrenia. We have two guests coming up, two incredible guests, that really did an excellent job of showing me not only the treatment applications as it pertains to schizophrenia, but also people who live with schizophrenia have desires and hobbies and need to fill their time just like the rest of us. And I really failed to connect that this is a way for people who are maybe struggling to leave home or maybe don’t have a big social group or may be isolated to connect with other people in a very meaningful way. Just right up front, I want to say Gabe was wrong. Rachel was right. This is a common occurrence in our meetings.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, absolutely, Rachel is always right. Just kidding. What’s amazing is that virtual reality has actually been used in a lot of different ways the past, let’s say, going on 30 years now to treat mental disorders, whether it’s fears, anxiety, depression, PTSD and, of course, schizophrenia. But up until now, it’s been confined to different labs and trials, stuff that the normal everyday people like you and me, Gabe, we wouldn’t have access to. But this has been going on kind of behind the scenes for a while and now we’re starting to have access to it. So we have these incredible guests coming on here in just a little bit. Our first one is Deepak Gopalakrishna, who is the founder and CEO of Rey, R E Y, and that is a virtual reality therapy system. Our second guest coming on a little later in the show are actually the directors and producers of a movie called Goliath: Playing with Reality, and it’s the true story of a man with schizophrenia and it’s incredible and we’re going to hit all of these guests here in just a little bit. But first of all, let’s establish what is virtual reality? Because like you said, Gabe, I think some of us are stuck in the 90s. We’re not really sure what exactly that even means. Like, are we talking about Tron, the movie? What are we imagining here? Today what we’re talking about virtual reality is the immersive experiences and usually for the normal consumers, you buy a headset and then you have like two controllers that you, you know, hold in your hands and they have buttons, but they also kind of track your hand motions.
Gabe Howard: And what’s important is that the outside world is largely locked out. Right, so think of it like goggles. In fact, I believe they’re called virtual reality goggles, but there are computer generated environment that you see through your headset and what the user sees and hears is only presented through that headset. So it’s not like playing a video game where you can talk to your buddies. It’s largely immersive. Obviously, if somebody taps you on the shoulder, that’s from the outside world, but it’s just a much more immersive experience than your typical console video game that you would play on your television.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, completely different than just kind of looking at a screen. With the head set, it is like three sixty. So when you turn your head like you’re looking around in the environment, if you were to look downwards at your feet, you’re going to see whatever it is they want you to see. So you usually see the floor of the environment, you look up, you see the sky of that environment that’s been created. And it’s much more, I guess, in depth. As far as like the visual field, when I tried it out, we’ll get into, it didn’t look like I was just looking at a screen. It definitely was like you could reach out into the environment and feel like you could interact with it.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, would you say another good example would be similar to the 3- D experience at like our local cinema?
Rachel Star Withers: I wish I could say it was like that, but it’s so much better.
Gabe Howard: Ok.
Rachel Star Withers: Its technology has come so far. That is honestly what I thought it would be like was kind of like that little 3-D like, Oh, no stuff popping out at you. But where we’re at now, as far as like what me and you can buy on the market for virtual reality, is incredibly impressive.
Gabe Howard: And just to make sure that we’re on the same page with what we’re talking about, the headset that Rachel used cost approximately $350. It stands alone. You obviously need content for it, but the hardware is approximately $350. It’s not a $10,000 headset running on a $10,000 computer connected to a $10,000 mainframe. It’s relatively inexpensive considering everything that you get and it’s so immersive that it can actually provide exposure therapy. I know I’ve stolen the lead from you, Rachel, but what does virtual reality used to treat right now?
Rachel Star Withers: There’s three different ways that VR is being used currently to treat different mental disorders, one of them is exposure therapy, like you said, and that’s where it puts you into the situation. It’s really great for people who have social anxiety, phobias, fears because they can, like, put you in a bus, they can put you in a subway terminal. Different things like that. Another thing that they’re using it for is cognitive therapy, which we know and love. If you’ve been to any sort of therapist, you’ve done some sort of cognitive therapy exercises. They’re finding new ways to implement pretty much that into the video game atmosphere. But that 360 and I honestly, I do get a little annoyed when I go to the therapist, you know, and they hand me like a journal to fill out. Like it gets kind of old, you know, the fiftieth time you filled out a journal exercise for cognitive therapy. So some of these ones for the virtual reality are like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’m hoping more therapists look into this area because I would love the next time I go to a therapy session them to hand me like a video game to do instead of a journal with a little cartoon person on it. Anyway, the other way virtual reality is being used is social skills, and they have seen some amazing areas as far as helping people with autism, adults and children, learning how to function in social situations. And they’re just starting to use the social skill areas for people with schizophrenia, especially if you’re coming out of an extended stay in a mental hospital or something. You know, a lot of us have to, kind of, readjust to society. If you’re coming off your first major psychotic episode, it’s scary because you lose a lot of that confidence you had previously. So very interesting ways they’re finding that people of all different backgrounds can use VR.
Gabe Howard: And remember, this is science, this is being studied, it is being looked at, somebody didn’t just take a VR headset, plop it on somebody and say, Oh, we’re accomplishing things. Like everything, it may work for you. It may not work for you. It may work on some issues. It may not work on other issues. It’s emerging science, it’s emerging technology. And as I’m very fond of saying in the real world, your mileage may vary, but it’s exciting to think that new things are coming out because, as Rachel said, if somebody hands her a pencil and paper and tells her to keep a journal one more time, she’s going to scream. And largely we have found this in the schizophrenia community that they’re just being asked to do the same things over and over and over again. And while nobody can guarantee that this can work, at least it’s something new. And for many people who are experiencing, you know that hitting the wall or they want to move past it or whatever, it’s exciting. And I wanted to point all that out because the guest that you interviewed, Rachel, has been studying this and implementing this for a long time. He’s an expert, and you talked to him. Set him up.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, so Deepak Gopalakrishna, he is the founder of Rey, and this is pretty much the first platform available to lay folks like us, Gabe, to do VR therapy. Rey is also connected with the Oxford VR and really incredible the stuff that Oxford, the university, has been doing in this area, focusing on trying to help people with different mental disorders, especially schizophrenia, find new ways to treat it using virtual reality.
Gabe Howard: Awesome. All right, well, here we go.
Rachel Star Withers: Joining us now is Deepak Gopalakrishna, who is the CEO and founder of a brand new system called Rey. Thank you so much for being with us, Deepak. Now, right away, I need to ask what is Rey? Tell our listeners what exactly this platform is.
Deepak Gopalakrishna: Sure, but also, thank you for having me on, Rachel. It’s really a pleasure to be here. So, Rey is essentially what we term as Mental Health 3.0, where we want to give everyone access to high quality care.
Rachel Star Withers: And what is unique about Rey?
Deepak Gopalakrishna: There’s a couple of things that we have done and that we are built on top of that is very, very unique. When you think about sort of the first iteration of mental health care that was I drive to a doctor’s office, I park in the parking lot, I walk into the room and I sit down on their chair or on the couch, right? And I talk to someone and maybe we unpack a few problems, etc. Where we are today, for the most part, is I do almost the same thing, except I don’t leave my house. I sit here on a Zoom call like we are today and sit in a Zoom room, essentially recapturing the same room, except I’m sitting on my own couch. But it’s still the same thing, and it’s still you don’t know whether you’re seeing the right person, whether that person is actually going to get you better. And there’s also the next component of that, which is you see that person in the environment within which you need to see that person. So for example, if you want to build up confidence around other people, you don’t want to do that just in a one on one setting in a Zoom room. You want to do that on a crowded bus, right? You want to do that in a doctor’s office. And that’s what we do. We would take that person, we download them into a virtual environment and we create the virtual environment that allows people to do everything from sort of, make eye contact, be more confident, challenge things like persecutory beliefs, for example, right? Because it isn’t just exposure that solves the thing that you need to solve. You have to practice the skills. You have to be able to be coached to practice those skills in those environments. And that’s fundamentally what separates us; access to the high quality clinician in a scalable way, and the ability to do that in the environment within which you need to do it in. And that’s actually what gets people better because, and you probably know this, is you can spend years in therapy in a room and never actually be able to translate that into real life.
Rachel Star Withers: To put us in that situation, what’s really innovative is that you’re using virtual reality, the headsets and everything. Now, tell us, how does that part work?
Deepak Gopalakrishna: Yes, to sort of give people those tools, we create virtual reality environments that actually just demoing our fear of heights product yesterday to someone and we put them on a suspension bridge,
Rachel Star Withers: Wow.
Deepak Gopalakrishna: Right? And let them sort of move across the suspension bridge to the coach and the coach is sort of giving them instructions from the other side. We create the programs, Daniel Freeman, our scientific founder, one of the foremost thought leaders in psychosis, for example, he starts with a clinical brief. We have the artist. We have the engineers. We have other clinicians who all collaborate to build this. We test that in a clinical setting to make sure that it is actually delivering the right kind of outcomes. For example, our fear of heights, it decreases people’s fear of heights by 70% almost in about four weeks, and it’s just better than pretty much anything else out there, right? Our persecutory delusions that allows people to challenge those persecutory delusions that decreases it by 40% within several sessions. Our social avoidance for psychosis or social avoidance for social anxiety, we’re dropping it by 50% within six weeks. I mean, these types of things just don’t happen in any other way. So we build those things. We test that in clinical settings and then we put those into VR headsets and people who join our clinic, we actually send them headsets and it’ll show up at your house. You’ll have a coach who guides you into sort of actually putting on the headset. I mean, these things are relatively new technology, right? So we help people sort of get into it. And then we have coaching sessions and therapy sessions that are combined with the sessions that you do with the best in the world at what you’re trying to get better at.
Rachel Star Withers: Well, what made my ears perk up just now when you were saying that the way you’re dealing with delusions. Here at Inside Schizophrenia, a lot of people with schizophrenia, obviously, we deal with delusions, hallucinations. Can you tell us a little bit more about the delusions application?
Deepak Gopalakrishna: And we actually get people to challenge their persecutory delusion beliefs, the belief systems. You have a therapist there with you and you have other people around, you’re sort of encouraged and motivated to get closer to that person, make eye contact. So it allows you to challenge those beliefs that these things are actually dangerous for you. And by doing that and sort of doing that in multiple different scenarios, whether that’s in a train or in a lift or in a variety of other areas, what we found is that within several sessions we were able to decrease the PSYRATS scores and the outcome score is by about 40%, almost half. It is by challenging those beliefs rather than encouraging the safety behaviors which people often exhibit. Let’s get you out of sort of exhibiting those safety behaviors. Let’s get you out of sort of exhibiting those safety behaviors, let’s highly challenge those beliefs. Let’s help you do that in an environment where those quote unquote threats might exist so that when you actually come out of that, you have essentially rewired the brain. The brain is an amazing sort of place. The plasticity of the human brain is exceptional, right? It can learn a lot of new things. Same thing with social avoidance is this building confidence, building of self-assurance, being able to make that eye contact, interacting with other human beings and getting over those fears through a lot of different activities that we might do that essentially take the trigger that elicits that response and reprogram the brain to actually build a new memory.
Rachel Star Withers: Very interesting, I feel some of this it’s almost a little scary when you think about like what you’re saying, like reprograming, pretty much the brain. But I also think that most of us who have schizophrenia or very serious mental disorder, especially ones that deal with psychosis, that’s our every day. We’re constantly, our reality is already kind of distorted. So I think that’s one of the most interesting things when it comes to the idea of treating people who struggle with what is reality and then treating it with virtual reality. It’s almost like kind of meeting us where we’re already at.
Deepak Gopalakrishna: And you’re absolutely right, and the brain does perceive. It’s the perception of reality, right? It’s amazing how it perceives it as real, even though you know that it is not real. But it’s that it’s the training and the practice and the cognitive behavioral therapy that happens within these environments that allow us to decrease those types of physiological responses and sort of get the brain back into perceiving things as they should be perceived or as you want to perceive them so as to live more of a normal life. I mean, that’s the end goal.
Rachel Star Withers: Rey does seem like another level. And it seems like you’re able to actually do these exercises.
Deepak Gopalakrishna: Absolutely. We let’s think of it in terms of modalities. You have talk therapy, which is what you do in the Zoom room. You have medication management because I think there is a role for medication. And then what we have is a third modality, which is the ability to practice the skills in the environment that you need to practice that skills. So we offer those first two, but we actually bring an entirely sort of new modality to the table that just fundamentally changes the game and gives people the ability to translate those skills into real life.
Rachel Star Withers: How do you see using Rey for the treatment of schizophrenia?
Deepak Gopalakrishna: It isn’t necessarily for a diagnosis per say, but every diagnosis has symptoms and processes that are impacted, right? So you might have social avoidance. You might not want to go meet other people. You might have persecutory delusions or beliefs. You might have other threat factors. You might also have other phobias or you might have attention issues, worry issues, right? So we build programs that actually address those inherent things that people are feeling. So it’s for prosecutorial delusions, it’s for worry, it’s for rumination, it’s for attention deficit to address those threat beliefs. The social avoidant behaviors also
Rachel Star Withers: Oh, yes.
Deepak Gopalakrishna: Is relatively prevalent in schizophrenia, so that’s also something that’s really well tested. We had like a 500 person clinical trial. This really, really nice stories that we’re going to be able to tell pretty soon. That’s sort of how we think for psychosis and schizophrenia that we actually do have tools that no one else has.
Rachel Star Withers: How can our listeners learn more about Rey if they’re interested in getting part of the program, if they’re interested in talking to their doctor about maybe using Rey somehow? Tell them what to do.
Deepak Gopalakrishna: Talk to your doctor. Give them the information, it’s at GetRey.com, so G E T R E Y .com. So you can either access it directly through our clinicians or, you know, see if your doctor can reach out to us. And we’re always super happy to work with clinicians around the world. We’re happy to work directly with individuals. So there’s lots of different avenues to reach out to us. We have our own clinicians in-house, so we have therapists, highly qualified therapists who know the space. Our scientific co-founder is one of the foremost thought leaders in the space as well, so it’s built very specifically for folks who are who are dealing with this in their lives. So either through our website or even having your doctor call us or drop us a note, have them drop me a note, I’m happy to talk to them directly, right? It’s Deepak@OxfordVR.org, and we can get a get a headset out to you.
Rachel Star Withers: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Deepak. It’s wonderful speaking with you.
Gabe Howard: Great interview, Rachel, now you talked a lot about therapy, but what did you gain as far as in therapy, in the schizophrenia space from that interview?
Rachel Star Withers: I was absolutely enamored when he talked about the use of Rey and VR for delusions and that’s something that I know many of us with schizophrenia struggle with. And it’s something that’s very hard to deal with. You know, outside of medication, it is. It’s hard to find like any sort of therapy to help you with the delusion other than like writing about it. You know, it’s like, OK. I want to try that out. When he mentioned that right away, I want to be like, sign me up. I would love a new type of therapy to try something to help me with, like delusional thoughts. Another area would be the paranoia. Many of us who have the, outdated, terms for schizophrenia, but I originally was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. I don’t even know how they would begin to acknowledge, you know, my personal symptom with the paranoia, but I would love to find out.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that I think is important to reiterate is this is virtual reality therapy. It’s not something that you just grab on your own and you do without guidance. So people with schizophrenia that are doing this are doing it in conjunction with a therapist, medical personnel. They’re not just downloading weird apps and declaring that they’re going through therapy because they’ve taken a virtual reality program. That’s something that I took away from this interview. Just it’s just another therapy just happens to use virtual reality. But a question that came up that I wanted to ask you, Rachel, is if somebody with schizophrenia is having trouble distinguishing from reality or delusions or hallucinations, is virtual reality OK for them? Because I know that you struggle with different types of hallucinations and delusions, and you have spoken very highly of virtual reality. But wasn’t that difficult for you? What was your experience with virtual reality?
Rachel Star Withers: What’s fascinating to me is that so many times people have brought this up to me in the past and I really couldn’t answer because I had never tried it myself, but people would be like, Oh well, do you even think you’d be able to tell the difference? Or what if you got stuck in the virtual reality? Because I have gotten kind of stuck for periods of times in a psychotic episode. You know, and in my mind, I was kind of like, that probably wouldn’t happen, but I never tried it for myself. Now that I have, and I was incredibly impressed with where tech is nowadays. No. No, I don’t think anyone with schizophrenia is going to get stuck in the virtual reality, no more than I would get stuck playing, you know, my super NES Mario Game. Um, you know, growing up when I would play video games, I would never turn off the Nintendo and think, OK, I’m Mario, let’s go plumb. You know? I mean, that just wasn’t a thing. It was the exact same way. When I took the headset off, it’s over. I feel personally that people with schizophrenia really would not have a problem telling the difference between virtual reality and the world around them. Our issue is that the world around us is what gets confusing. I liken it to watching a movie that I’m really, really into. Once the movie is over, though, I don’t still think I’m in the movie. I don’t still think I’m watching it. I understand that it’s over. Now, of course, these are my experiences. Yes, if I’m in the middle of a psychotic episode where I keep thinking that my arm is crawling away from me and my mom is trying to get me to stay in the bed because I’m not making sense, no one should put a VR headset on me. So, yeah, I do think there needs to be a line. But at the same time, if I’m in that state, you probably shouldn’t turn on The Exorcist and put it in front of me playing on the TV.
Gabe Howard: There’s safety concerns with everything,
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, yes.
Gabe Howard: Whether it’s VR therapy, whether it’s cognitive behavioral therapy, whether it’s group therapy. That makes perfect sense. People with any sort of illness are not always capable of doing the things when they’re symptomatic that they’re not able to do. You know, if I have the flu and I have 103 degree temperature, you probably shouldn’t put a virtual reality headset on me, either.
Rachel Star Withers: Something that you should also take into account for my people with schizophrenia out there. It probably isn’t the best idea to run out and like buy a headset and try and do all this on your own. You do need a therapist kind of helping you, to debrief you. The other thing is that even just playing certain games could trigger some troubling thoughts. If you’re prone to suicidal ideation and tendencies, it very well could trigger some of those in you. So I do stress that if you have schizophrenia, be careful. Don’t try and just go out and buy a headset and download a bunch of content that, yeah, it could cause some problems. And I say all this, Gabe, because what do you think one of the first games I downloaded was when I bought the headset?
Gabe Howard: Oh, Rachel.
Rachel Star Withers: It was a horror game, and of course, I like scrolled
Gabe Howard: [Sigh]
Rachel Star Withers: Through and I was like, you know, I’m like reading the ratings. They’re like made for teens, teen. I’m like, Whatever, I’m an adult. Oh, this one’s very mature. Let me buy it. That was some money down the drain. I jumped so hard that the headset flew off and landed on the floor and I was like, I can’t play that again. That was a little too intense for me. The graphic, even though I knew it was fake, it was a little too much because and I want to say this, I do think it’s important for people out there who are running out to try a VR headset, you can’t look away. And that’s what struck me and actually made the game very unnerving for me was that it wasn’t like watching a scary movie. You know, where I can look to the side is because I’m wearing the headset, there is no looking away. And I do think that is something very important to stress to people out there who do have problems with visual hallucinations like I do. They love to just kind of be like right around the corner. So the game? Yeah, it played on that a little. So I do want to let people know that it can be a little jarring. Please be careful what you download. Yeah, and, don’t do what Rachel did.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, I always knew that you would become a cautionary tale. Don’t try this at home.
Rachel Star Withers: And now, a word from our sponsors.
Rachel Star Withers: And we’re back talking about virtual reality in the treatment of schizophrenia.
Gabe Howard: Our next guest is super cool and, full disclosure, we met them when they contacted Inside Schizophrenia because they had questions about schizophrenia, and Rachel’s voice actually appears in the virtual reality experience. Now it’s narrated by Tilda Swinton, who is several levels above Rachel Star Withers. But you still shared space with Ms. Swinton, so I think that is super cool. Rachel, can you tell us about our next guest?
Rachel Star Withers: So actually, they were in contact with me over a year ago, and they found us through the podcast, Inside Schizophrenia. And the director, writer, producers listened to the podcast to kind of help them understand schizophrenia. Actually there is a clip inside of the movie. I don’t really know what I am. Maybe a brain stem? If you are playing the movie, my voice does pop up a little bit, just a small snippet. And at the time, I had no clue how big this was going to get. You know, Gabe, you’re very popular, and I know so many people message us asking, Hey, I’m writing a movie, I’m writing a book, I want to understand schizophrenia, bipolar. People from all walks of life, students. So when they reached out to me, I honestly, I mean, I didn’t know it’s was just like a student film? What it was? But I treat everyone the same. So it’s been very exciting for me to see this turned into something big because most of the time I never even hear back from the people who ask for my help. This has been really incredible, and they were very respectful when they talked to me, the questions that they asked. I was just very impressed. And to see what the movie actually was, that it didn’t exploit people with schizophrenia has been just absolutely wonderful.
Gabe Howard: Well, Rachel, you sat down with the creators and had a very cool conversation, let’s go ahead and play that interview and see what they discussed.
Rachel Star Withers: Excited right now to be speaking with Barry Gene Murphy and May Abdalla, who are the directors and producers of Goliath: Playing with Reality. Thank you both so much for being here.
Barry Gene Murphy: Thanks for having us.
Rachel Star Withers: Before we even get into the movie / game / virtual reality experience, you guys just won something really big. Tell us about that.
May Abdalla: We won the Grand Jury Prize for VR at the Venice International Film Festival last week.
Rachel Star Withers: I was stalking the Instagrams, and I think I saw a picture there of maybe was it you with Penelope Cruz?
Barry Gene Murphy: That’s in the press room, that was kind of crazy. She just walked in and sat down next to me. Yeah.
Rachel Star Withers: I’m actually like a huge fan of hers, so like a minute like that little picture popped up, I was like, Oh wow, no, this is legit.
Barry Gene Murphy: It was great.
May Abdalla: Yeah, it was. It was mad, it was like the proper paparazzi red carpet experience.
Barry Gene Murphy: Yeah.
Rachel Star Withers: Well, that is incredible, and that was pretty much Goliath’s, that’s its first big showing? Or second or third?
May Abdalla: No, that was the premiere, the premiere was at Venice, and now it’s live on the Oculus Store. It will continue to tour, but that was the beginning of its journey.
Rachel Star Withers: Well, first, tell us what exactly is Goliath?
May Abdalla: So Goliath is a 25 minute virtual reality experience that tells the story of a man called John, who is Goliath, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, spends seven years in an institution and when he comes out, is pretty isolated, but then discovers the world of online gaming. So it’s an exploration both of kind of his story of this management of this unreal world of psychosis and the kind of non-reality of games, but also it uses VR to explore kind of how we create our perceptions of reality and like, how do we piece our stories together?
Rachel Star Withers: Why this story? Why did you decide that we want to bring John’s story to life?
Barry Gene Murphy: Like John is a friend’s brother, and I heard this story from him like about 10 years ago when he was fresh out of hospital and my friend didn’t recognize his brother and his slurred speech, his gait, his just his countenance was just it was such a change in the way, even though he’d been visiting like, you know, out in the real world, is like a fish out of water. And what happened was when he noticed he was playing online games, he was his old self again. He was in the world and he was witty. He was like the old, the old John. That story kind of like just caught on to me, and I just I thought I wanted to make like an animated documentary about it because VR hadn’t really been out in the world. And then me and May worked together on a couple of VR projects. And I kind of convinced May that this would be a good idea, the story, because it just kept coming back. And then the more we kind of wrote the idea out and planned it and thought about it, the more active for VR it became, you know, it started to write itself.
May Abdalla: And I think for me, the question was like, Well, you know, you don’t really want to use VR for a story where it felt like really critical, really meaningful. And many people know somebody who’s experienced something like psychosis. And I think the idea of trying to tell that story, kind of an ordinary story, meant to give it the justice of the form or just really trying to get inside of something which, you know, when it’s in cinema, it’s like super dramatized and really extreme. And then people actually who are experiencing it kind of get ignored and have to kind of get through really difficult experiences kind of alone. And we started.
Barry Gene Murphy: The more we dug into it, the more we realized that actually in the media, the representation of conditions like this is really terrible, you know what I mean? And people have quite a bad in-built bias to it. And we wanted to tell an everyday story we wanted to like, just put people in. This is how it is with this person, and it’s largely positive. You know what I mean? We’re not trying to make you pity anybody. We’re not trying to victimize the person. We’re just trying to show how they live, what’s good for them. How gaming is good for them. And, you know, and then also ask you like, how sure are you of your reality?
Rachel Star Withers: One of the things I love about, and I’m going to say experience, because like, movie and game don’t really justify it, so we’ll go with experience, is that it has nothing to do with horror. I think most of the time, if you were to hear, Hey, do you want to play a game about a schizophrenic person in a psych ward? You’re expecting it to be a horror or a horror type game. I’m expecting like mental patients like coming out of the walls and, you know?
Barry Gene Murphy: OK. Yeah. Bedlam.
Rachel Star Withers: Yeah, and if you watch or experience Goliath, it avoids all of that stuff. And I loved that being someone with schizophrenia. I just got to ask though, like, were you tempted to kind of add some horror to it? Or like, how did that go?
Barry Gene Murphy: Actually, at the beginning, we were never tempted to because it’s so uncomfortable anyway, that like to make someone uncomfortable in that space is just a step too far. We’re not ready for it in a way. It’s like we even have Tilda in the intro as Echo saying, it’s a cheap trick. Because we do a split second of horror and then we go, but that’s just a cheap trick, you know? So we were definitely not in any way interested in scaring people. If anything, we wanted them to feel the sublime like horror. But like, you know, from an eternal perspective, you know, like because the fear of your mental illness is forever, you know what I mean? That there is a kind of terminal kind of fear. We were kind of more interested in portraying that kind of idea, but not scaring people out of their wits.
May Abdalla: I also think that when people are scared and I’m often scared in VR because I’m such a scaredy cat. At some point when we were testing playing back your voice and I had recorded my own voice saying my own name to me and putting it in the mix. And actually, I jumped out of my skin when I heard it again because I was so easily scared, I thought somebody was in the room talking to me. I think the problem with introducing fear into something like this is we really wanted people to feel like they could listen and engage and think and kind of enter the kind of compassionate space. And when you’re scared, you really can’t listen.
Rachel Star Withers: And just for our listeners out there, when I was doing the experience, I have to say, I was at no point ever scared or fearful of anything, really. The word that comes to me was wonder. I was very impressed with how you guys presented the experience, and it was almost just like, Wow, there is so much going on here because you pretty much take us inside of a person’s brain, you know, the best we can. And I really, though, that was the word that came to me was, Wow, this is incredible. This is like just wonder all around me.
May Abdalla: That’s, thank you, that’s amazing.
Barry Gene Murphy: Yeah.
May Abdalla: Yeah, that’s very cool. I mean, we’ve had some reviews like, you know, winning the Lion was obviously really cool, and I’m never going to have that moment of fame ever again in my life. But like, what’s really, really amazing at the moment is just reading the reviews on the Oculus Store and
Barry Gene Murphy: Yeah.
May Abdalla: Seeing kind of gamers put their stories and people writing some really frank stuff about their experience, personal experience of schizophrenia and saying like, Yeah, I think somebody wrote, this is like, you pulled it out of my head. That was the most honor, you know, like that is totally amazing and really chuffed with that kind of response.
Barry Gene Murphy: And those kind of things are the reasons why we wanted to make it in the first place, you know, to reach those people.
May Abdalla: We didn’t interview John loads at the very beginning because we didn’t want to disrupt his life and we were just doing some research around the topic and we were helped by there’s a charity called Mind, and they helped us organize some focus groups with people who had either been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder just, you know, people who lived experience. And we had these really interesting workshops where we gave them a headset. We showed them some stuff, and then we asked them to go through their experience, talk about it and draw it in Tilt Brush, which is this really fun program in VR where you can kind of draw in 3D and like, add sparkles and lights
Rachel Star Withers: Wow.
May Abdalla: And just see people really just take time to express themselves. And when we asked them about if you could make an experience that did justice to your experiences, who would you most want to show it to? Everybody we spoke to just said, Oh yeah, a doctor or like someone in the medical profession because they’ve got no idea, like they really just
Rachel Star Withers: Wow.
May Abdalla: They’re just like, Oh, you’re feeling like this, take some more medication. And it just really felt like, Oh, wow, OK, we just really want to make something which is informative, but not like pedagogic in that way.
Barry Gene Murphy: Mm-hmm.
May Abdalla: That’s just can help. I think empathy isn’t quite the right word, but just like generally not just assume that this label is really enough to tell that story because it’s an experience which is not about the words or the labels, it’s about the feeling and kind of that journey. And that’s what’s so good about VR. Like it’s its own language. You’re just kind of in it. And by the time you’re out of it, I think you’ve kind of forgotten where you were to begin with.
Rachel Star Withers: Now, I must ask here, how did Tilda Swinton get involved?
May Abdalla: Well, we emailed our producer, we sat and we were like, Who would we like to do the voiceover? And then we rewatched her doing the Ancient One and then and about 200 emails later. We had a day in Paris in a recording studio. Tilda Swinton is, she’s genuinely interested and her mind is all over these kind of questions. And,
Barry Gene Murphy: You know, she just had so many questions, and she knew it was a really, really wonderful experience working with her.
May Abdalla: Yeah. Like I think her daughter is studying psychology and she’s just really interested about like the tricks that the mind plays on you, how we see people, how we misunderstand people. She’s a very compassionate, big hearted lady and very talented, obviously. You know, she probably got handed the synopsis and thought, Oh, this is weird enough for me to be involved in this.
Barry Gene Murphy: Like she likes VR as well. So we were surprised that she really like she likes VR or she would. She had seen a lot of stuff up in Sheffield one day, and that really made an impression on her.
May Abdalla: Yeah. And yeah, she’s really cool, and I think she really cares about the project and she’s really behind it. So we’re very lucky because it means a lot. And I think, you know, a lot of people are going to click on it because it says Tilda Swinton.
Rachel Star Withers: That’s absolutely awesome. So, uhm, our previous episode that this one is building off of is actually on technology, which for me had been a very frustrating episode to do because of the lack of technology innovations towards schizophrenia.
Barry Gene Murphy: Right.
Rachel Star Withers: And there’s just so many dated ideals when it comes to treatment of schizophrenia. Unfortunately,
Barry Gene Murphy: Yep.
Rachel Star Withers: One of them being that like people with schizophrenia are scared of technology, they’re scared of being tracked. And I like just very dated things that are just flat out incorrect and something we touched on in that show and that we want to focus on in this episode is the fact that the main age when schizophrenia comes out is, you know, around 14 to mid-20s,
Barry Gene Murphy: Yes.
Rachel Star Withers: Which tends to be the biggest users of tech. And when you think about like virtual reality, like how many teens and whatnot are in virtual reality? When I was watching Goliath, I thought, this is great because honestly, like the audience for
Barry Gene Murphy and May Abdalla: Yeah.
Rachel Star Withers: VR is much younger. I mean, it’d be great if people in their 60s latch on to VR, but it tends to be teens younger to 30s, which is also the main time that schizophrenia emerges.
Barry Gene Murphy: I think that, like the youth are like they’re so much more switched on to all these kind of like issues and stuff like that. I feel once it’s out there and they see how it’s framed and how they should react and that’s really great because they’ll just adopt like, you know, be able to think about it. And,
May Abdalla: some people are just more comfortable online and sharing and connecting and being honest online than they are face to face. And especially, I think, for people who might feel a bit of shame around their experiences.
Barry Gene Murphy: Yeah, but just like I think also there’s because we didn’t have the internet and we have this connection, we got this social connection. And you know, your friends were your friends that lived around the corner or they weren’t, you know, they bullied you and you didn’t have friends or, you know, that was your kind of luck. But now with the internet and people finding their own tribes and like, you know, people who aren’t like that say too social can find the people who aren’t too social, too, and just hang out online. You know, it’s just possible now, especially with the kids. They’re all really connecting with their online people. And that’s kind of incredible for connection and for understanding and for everyone to be able to have that place, you know, to find that place and those people that understand them.
May Abdalla: Yeah, and I was just going to say because we’ve got a Discord server for Goliath. So we posted it on Reddit and it was mainly there to begin with just to kind of the people who were testing, and we would ask them to put that feedback. And now lots of people are dropping in having done the experience and somebody actually messaged today, Hi, I’m as high schooler. My mom has severe bipolar disorder and I haven’t been diagnosed, but my dad says I am. When I’m gaming, it feels nothing reality wise. It’s nice to escape my mind for a bit. I love playing Goliath because the video game part felt so relatable. This place seems very welcoming, so I thought I’d say something.
Rachel Star Withers: That’s amazing. I was hoping to me that like people, young people, especially who are in the VR world would find Goliath, who might not be diagnosed, who might not
Barry Gene Murphy: Yeah.
Rachel Star Withers: Honestly be dealing with things and not know what they are. And
Barry Gene Murphy: Mm-hmm.
Rachel Star Withers: This might they be like, Wow, wait a second, I identify with this game. I identify with Goliath what he’s going through, and hopefully, you know that be a push. They need to go and get help and pretty much not feel so alone.
May Abdalla: You know, and then they continue writing, just finished playing the entire game and just, wow, it really blew me away while playing it. Once it started, I felt as if I was sucked into his universe, all of the things that go on in his mind. This is a VR masterpiece. I’ve been using gaming as an escape for years, and I related to that in a very personal way. Thank you to the creators for making this. It’s truly spectacular. You know, and then he goes on to the other channel to talk about his experiences and his mom and whether he has bipolar or not or they. And there’s just something in that that’s like really moving for me because games are important and they’re often kind of cast as this like, Oh, what are the kids doing? They’ve kind of lost in the game. They’re not like having a real life and actually, I don’t think it does justice to like the value of the kinds of experiences you have when you’re playing the kind of friends that you make, the kind of escape that is necessary, like from people for people who are suffering. And those kind of comments are just like, really amazing because they matter a lot, and I’m really glad that people are finding it.
Barry Gene Murphy: Just make it easier for people that just to take that one step.
May Abdalla: Well, I think that’s the whole point because it is about it is about isolation, isn’t it? And then
Rachel Star Withers: Yeah.
May Abdalla: What you want to do to kind of combat that is find ways where people don’t have to go through that stuff alone. My brother, he hears voices and I think about him a lot, and I think about his isolation as a result of it because just because of the kind of fear of how people might see him or treat him, and it does feel like there should be a way that technology can fill in those gaps.
Rachel Star Withers: Well, tell our listeners, how can they check out Goliath: Playing
Barry Gene Murphy: If you have an Oculus Quest or your nephew or niece or any family member has an Oculus Quest, you can download it for free on the Oculus Store.
May Abdalla: And, you know, we’re going to be touring the world over the next year, so just check the website, www.GoliathVR.io, in case we’re going to land near you.
Rachel Star Withers: Absolutely loved talking to you both, and thank you so much for the project. It is pretty impressive. I watched it and I was like, Wow. And I even I called my mom over because I was like, you need to come see this. This is really, really like it captures a lot of my experience. So, you guys did an amazing job. So thank you very much.
May Abdalla: That’s amazing, thank you. Yeah. It means a lot.
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, thank you so much. It was lovely speaking with you both.
Gabe Howard: Very, very cool interview, Rachel, and the name of the movie is Goliath: Playing with Reality. What did you think? What were your initial takeaways from the conversation, Rachel?
Rachel Star Withers: I liked how they treated Goliath, the person the movie is about, I liked how they treated his story. I liked how they genuinely reached out to people with schizophrenia to try and capture what they went through and help people understand, you know, how they went through the journey themselves of understanding and then trying to help others understand.
Gabe Howard: I took away a lot of the same things, but I also thought that it was kind of cool that this is free. If you have an Oculus Quest headset, it’s no cost. Is that correct?
Rachel Star Withers: Yes, so it was actually made through a sponsorship through Facebook and VR for Good, and that was kind of how it got started and it’s very, very impressive. If you do have an Oculus Quest, they have a different movie on there about blindness, which is also very incredible under this VR for Good kind of heading. So very, very interesting that there are people out there who they see that virtual reality is something new and a new way to help people understand people with disabilities. And I love that. I love that right away, the movie wasn’t horror based, you know, if we hear a virtual reality movie, Ok, about a schizophrenic, I’m expecting it to be set in a mental hospital with like crazy patients with knives coming at me, like, that’s what I would have assumed. You know, if you told me the premise, but you watch the movie and it’s absolutely nothing like that. It has a lot of 90s video game vibes to it. It’s very cool. None of it’s scary. It’s not something that, you know, nothing jumps out. It’s I don’t want to say sad, but it’s mesmerizing. It’s great for if you have a loved one and you’re trying to explain what schizophrenia is like. It’s very impressive because you can say, Hey, listen, this is a 30 minute movie where you can actually kind of get a small taste of what my everyday life is like. And I think there’s so much potential there for fighting stigma. Even for like students that are in colleges right now trying to understand what people with mental disorders go through. I think this would be an incredible thing that can encourage them to, you know, maybe go into the mental health field. The other really great area, I think, is that, hey, what is the main age, Gabe, who are using VR headsets? They’re not old people.
Gabe Howard: The younger generation.
Rachel Star Withers: Yeah, they’re not. They’re not us. Ok, they’re not me and you rushing out to buy these. It’s the young kids. And I hope that they find this movie. I hope that because it’s free, they’ll download it and try it. Maybe even thinking, Hey, the word schizophrenia makes them think it’s going to be a horror movie and they watch it, and it helps those who might be going through these things, those who themselves might be having, you know, the first symptoms of schizophrenia and they recognize it and say, Hey, I’m not alone. Well, this guy Goliath is going through something that I go through every day and I hope that encourages them to reach out and get help.
Gabe Howard: Anything that breaks the mold is obviously going to do a lot in terms of fighting stigma, discrimination and helping people, like you said, if you suspect that you have schizophrenia and all of your reference points are horror movies and danger and escaped mental patients and violence. You’re going to think to yourself, I don’t want to be associated with that. But if we can start getting more pop culture references where, you know, I might have schizophrenia. Ok. All right. You know, Goliath had some issues and he had to work through some stuff. But yeah, OK, all right. I understand I can get there and I need to do whatever. That is, in fact, a vast improvement over what we’ve seen. And, Rachel, you and I did some research and by you and I, I largely mean you, about the treatments of schizophrenia, and they’ve been out for a very, very long time.
Rachel Star Withers: The truth is, Gabe, I’m 36, which, you know, it isn’t that old, I’m not out here like, well, I’m 67 and I’ve been, you know, I’m 36 years old, and most of the treatments that I personally have went through for my schizophrenia are very dated. You know, I’m a big proponent of electroconvulsive therapy. It helped me. It’s not for everyone I know, but that’s been around since the 30s. And while every day there’s new medications coming out, which is amazing and great and I’ve been on lots of those too. If you’re like me and you’ve had schizophrenia for at least 20 years, you’ve probably been on antipsychotics that came out in the 50s, and, you know you’ve been through the wringer of things and the fact that there’s something brand new coming out is so exciting to me. The fact that there are these new ways to treat schizophrenia that again, they’ve been being looked at in labs and stuff for quite a bit, but I can access them. You know that me as someone with schizophrenia who has done. You know, people ask me, Rachel, what antipsychotics have you been on? And my answer is always, it’s easier for me to name the ones I haven’t.
Rachel Star Withers: This is incredible. I’m so excited that we have a chance to look at schizophrenia different, that there are people out there like the people working for Rey, and there are people that are working with the Goliath movie that want to explore mental disorders in such a futuristic way because so much of the time we’ve been stuck in the past. So if you’re out there with schizophrenia, if you’re a loved one, this should give you so much hope, like this is the next generation. Like, I feel like a Star Wars thing, the next generation coming on here. But it is, you know, Gabe, where whether we’re talking bipolar, psychosis, this is the next level. And that’s so incredible to me. And I hope if you’re out there that you hear this and you look into some of these new treatments, maybe they’re not for you. That’s totally fine, but it is something that’s on the horizon. It is something that we’re going to see popping up more and more in doctors’ offices. And if you’re out there and you are suffering with schizophrenia that’s very treatment resistant, this could be a new avenue, and it’s definitely something to consider.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, I did want to know, when you first heard about virtual reality for the treatment of schizophrenia, what was your kneejerk initial thoughts on it? Did you think that it would work? Because my knee jerk reaction is this is B.S., it’ll never work. So I’m interested in in your thoughts about the efficacy of its treatment.
Rachel Star Withers: So many times I hear about new treatments and stuff, and I think, oh, wow, that’s exciting, I would love to try that. And maybe I will in 10, 20 years. This is something I have been kind of seeing on the back burner and studies and stuff, but I never thought I would have the chance, honestly in my lifetime to get to try it. As far as did I think it would work? I don’t know. I hoped it would. I think I, whenever there’s any sort of new treatment that comes out, I always have hope and that comes from someone who’s been on almost every antipsychotic, every antidepressant, who’s been through the wringer. Like I said, I’ve had electroconvulsive therapy. I’ve had almost, you know, anything you can think of, I’ve tried and I’ve had a rough time. So I even me like, there’s always hope when I hear of something new that I haven’t tried out there because I think maybe this is it. Maybe this is the thing that’ll make tomorrow a little bit easier. Maybe this is the thing, you know, I don’t think there’s a cure out there. I don’t think there’s any therapy that’s going to make everything just magically better. I definitely don’t believe that. But, I just see, like, hey, these are tools that maybe they’ll help me make something better and that’s my excitement for virtual reality is I see it as a brand new tool for dealing with things that other therapies haven’t. Going back, especially to the paranoia I’m I really, you know, the minute somebody messages me, Hey, we have this new VR thing for paranoia, Rachel, that you can try. Sign me up. I would love it because almost nothing has helped me with that.
Gabe Howard: Rachel, I love your enthusiasm for new research, I think that it is vital for all of us living better. I also like that you recognize that the world is not perfect. There’s probably not going to be a cure in our lifetime, but anything that can make tomorrow better. Like, I think that’s really the core message in all of this. Anything that has the potential to make tomorrow better is definitely worth trying in a safe manner. Don’t just run out and do stuff because you saw it online. Be safe about it. Do your homework, ask the right questions and see if this is right for you.
Rachel Star Withers: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Inside Schizophrenia. Please, like, share, subscribe and rate our podcasts and we will see you next time here on Inside Schizophrenia, a Healthline Media podcast.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Schizophrenia, a podcast from Psych Central and Healthline Media. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/IS or on your favorite podcast player. Your host, Rachel Star Withers, can be found online at RachelStarLive.com. Co-host Gabe Howard can be found online at gabehoward.com. Thank you and we’ll see you next time.