Danya Institute Inc.

Avatar Assisted Therapy at the “Brave New World”

At the “Brave New World: Using Technology to Enhance Behavioral Health” Symposium Dick Dillon addressed the challenges of limited accessibility of traditional addiction treatment. This symposium took place on March 8, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland.  Dick Dillon is the founder and CEO of Innovaision, LLC and his co-presenter, Dave Ennis, MS, is the Western Region Service Manager of the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.

According to Dillon, “Twenty-five million Americans [currently] need substance abuse treatment and only 2.3 million will receive it.” In order to remove many of the barriers that prevent such individuals from receiving treatment, he and his colleagues at Innovaision created Avatar Assisted Therapy, an interactive online treatment service that consumers can access without having to leave their homes (Innovaision, 2013).

“An Avatar is a computer-generated character which represents you in a virtual space and allows you to meet and interact synchronously with others who are in the same virtual space,” explained Dillon.

“We are not developing new types of therapy; we are developing new platforms for therapy, new places in which you can deliver counseling,” Dillon assured his audience, understanding the apprehension toward such an innovative approach to treatment. “This is not designed to replace you. It requires clinicians,” he clarified.

Using evidence-based approaches that have been demonstrated to be delivered effectively online, in Avatar Assisted Therapy, a virtual counseling space that is designed for easy use and navigation is created and customized by the therapist. The space is conducive to both individual and group therapy, with typing and audio options for communication.

With timestamps and verbatim dialogue in messaging, Dillon pointed out the clinical advantage of being able to cut and paste messages into treatment notes. Dillon also went on to demonstrate how to send a private message to a particular individual during a group session which, unlike traditional group therapy, bypasses the need to address an individual client publicly and risk embarrassment or a breach of confidentiality. Dillon also noted that clinicians are able to track client activity in the virtual space, which could link with electronic health records for insurance purposes.

Dillon also demonstrated the interactive sidebar that can appear on the side bar of the virtual space, which he explained “could be used for questionnaires, handouts, or webpages.” Clinicians can also manually set up a viewer screen into any virtual room and show a PowerPoint presentation or video to the entire group.

Dillon provided examples of consumers who would particularly benefit from Avatar Assisted Therapy, such as those with disabilities, those without transportation, those that live far away from treatment, and those concerned with confidentiality or stigma, especially in small communities. Dillon explained that these are the people who either do not access traditional treatment at all or drop out almost immediately. With Internet access, a username, and a password, individuals can enter Avatar Assisted Therapy within minutes and without hassle 24 hours a day (Preferred Family Healthcare, 2012).

Innovaision and the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration (ADAA) are currently conducting research that compares outcomes of those participating in Avatar treatment to a demographically-matched treatment group receiving treatment within a traditional clinic (Schiffman, 2010). They have found a 90% completion rate of Avatar Assisted Therapy participants compared to 35 to 40% of those that attend the traditional clinic. Avatar clients also engaged in 2.4 times the number of activities over the course of a month in comparison to those in the traditional treatment.

Dillon believes that these promising results of Avatar Assisted Therapy are partially due to the elimination of time, money, and energy participants must spend to attend traditional treatment centers. Another important factor that Dillon believes plays a role in the high attendance rates of Avatar Assisted Therapy is the comfort of confidentiality that exists in the virtual space. The above-mentioned research supports this,  finding that clients “almost globally said that they felt more comfortable talking about things that were tough to talk about [in the virtual setting].”

The Symposium was conducted through the collaboration of the Mid-Atlantic Node Clinical Trails Network, Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, Maryland Mental Hygiene Administration, and the Central East Addiction Technology Transfer Center, a program of The Danya Institute.

You can access Innovaision’s website, a video of Avatar Assisted Therapy in action at Preferred Family Healthcare, and an article on Avatar Assisted Therapy in Popular Science magazine below:

Innovaision (2013, May 24). Avatar Assisted Therapy. Innovaision: Changing the Way You Do Good.  Retrieved from: http://innovaision.com/?page_id=284.

Preferred Family Healthcare (2012, May 8). Preferred Family Healthcare’s Virtual World featured on SAMHSA’s Road to Recovery. YouTube. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TvzSLh1MKI.

Schiffman, L. (2010, December 14). Virtual Therapists: The Avatar Will See You Now. Addiction therapists turn to Second Life for help reaching patients. Popular Science. Retrieved from: http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2010-12/avatar-will-see-you-now.


Catie Greene, MS, is a pre-doctoral student of Counselor Education at the College of William & Mary.