Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mental Health & Gaming

Art by Cynthia Lane Armstrong
My Own Struggles
    So, I've struggled with 'clinical depressive disorder' for as long as I can remember (though admittedly, my memory is terrible). Various abuses (non-familial, mind you. My family is very great) during my childhood lead to low self-image which in turn lead to a self-deprecating attitude. Upon reaching middle school, I had become suicidal and obsessively self-mutilating. It was a dark time in my life; I had isolated myself emotionally, fallen away from my faith in Christ, and reciprocated my hurt by lashing out at others and acting rebelliously.
    By grace of God, I emerged from this dark place thanks to so many blessing He poured into my life all at once, when I needed them the absolute most. Before the day arrived that I would take my own life, the woman who would become my fiance grew to care for me and this relationship that had burgeoned pulled me away from the proverbial ledge. Together, we put my pieces back together and resolved to found our relationship by our faith. To this day, it bewilders me that the young, selfish, ignorant boy that I once was could possibly make such a decision. But again, all by the grace of God.

    Those days, I had very little solidarity with friends or family. Many of them were as troubled as I was in varying degrees, and I was ashamed to reveal my angst lest I be discarded by my peers. So, we would play video games and later, tabletop games as I discovered Dungeons & Dragons. But being the sort of person I was, the games were frivolous; saturated in 'murder-hoboism' and crude humour.
    Today, however, I have learned to use this painful past as a powerful tool in my experience with other people who are hurting. Dozens and dozens of times, I have been stopped and asked about the absonant marring that webs across my forearm. At the store, during my time at college, at friends' houses, people ask me why I would resort to something so drastic, why I choose not to hide the scarring, if I have any regrets. My answer, summarily, is this: With that past behind me, I must live with the repercussions. And in doing so, I have been given the opportunity to help others who hurt the way I did.

Therapeutic Gaming
    Now before I start to ramble, this is not some sob story. My life is grand and I love living it. Rather, I want to signify the importance of building relationships that is oft overlooked (at least to the extent that I have perceived) and how detrimental an absence of them can be. To finish this terrible segue, this is why I fell in love with tabletop games. By living vicariously through a fictional character, I could allow myself to build relationships with the others at the table.

    Thanks to the great guys over at the Saving the Game podcast, I learned clinical therapy had taken a foray into the world of roleplaying games. The Bodhana Group; a non-profit organization that specializes in the holistic treatment of children and adolescence impacted by sexual trauma, uses therapeutic role-playing games as a medium to socialize, build empathy, and provide insight into moral decision making. At the time I had learned about them I thought it was an amazing prospect. Really, it is a very logical strategy and I'm not sure why it was so surprising to me. Roleplay being used for therapy is exceptionally common. Revolving the roleplay around a constructed and ordered game would logically provide further benefit, both for the therapist and the patient.

    So, from the perspective of a naive young man, this 'gaming therapy', if you will, sounded sensational. I'm totally jazzed about the prospect of role-playing and tabletop games being able to provide more than just a source of entertainment and actually help people who are hurting. However, before I jump to any conclusions, the right half of my brain yearns to know if it works. This is difficult to quantify as I am not a therapist, nor do I have any experience in the discipline. So, I thought I'd do some research on the subject and its efficacy.

    I won't bore you by regurgitating the condensed notes of the studies and organizations I found, as I had trouble understanding a portion of it even as I read it (I'm afraid I am unfamiliar, as it seems, with the therapist vernacular). Most prominently, I came across two studies: one was a study conducted in France on the effects of  regular tabletop gaming on cognitive decline and dementia in the elderly. Of the 3675 non-demented patients, 32.2% reported regular play of at least once per week. Of the 3675 participants, 840 developed dementia during the 20 year follow-up. According to their results, the risk of dementia was 15% lower in game players than in non-players.
    Additionally, a study was conducted in Grand Valley State University, Michigan, on the use of tabletop game intervention to reduce mental illness stigma among nursing students. 38 nursing students participated which showed an increase in empathy from the students.

Going Beyond
    So, it would appear that there is evidence to support the efficacy of tabletop games and their uses in mental health. These are excellent steps to take, but it is important for me to reiterate; while playing games and providing therapy for those of us that are hurting and need treatment is certainly an admirable act; it seldom results in a permanent fix to the problem. The emphasis that we should place on this is the relationships we build with each other. As a Christian, I am called to be engaged in others' lives. Sadly, it is easy to disconnect relationships from good deeds and charity and we tend to have difficulties making that distinction as a culture.
    What's important is to build relationships with those who are pushed to the margins. Defend them, be with them, be in solidarity with them. Show them Christ by living like Christ in their lives.

    I would say that someday I hope to build a ministry of games to help those that hurt the way I did those years ago. But far more importantly, I pray that I can step into those peoples' lives and show them the love and caring that they require.

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