Gaming Helped My Mental Illness, It Didn’t Give Me One

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Since childhood, I have always been somewhat of a casual gamer. My mother bought me my first game system, a PlayStation 2, when I was eight. I remember sitting inside during rainy days for hours playing Spyro and then Kingdom Hearts. I stopped gaming during college because, as for many students, there weren’t enough hours in the day.

However, in late 2014 I was diagnosed with anxiety. It took almost two years to actually trace that anxiety as a symptom of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Fibromylagia. All of my conditions are a mouthful, to say the least, and mental illness has more ups and downs than a Cedar Park roller coaster. It is exhausting and debilitating. My brain would panic and I couldn’t control it. At the time, I didn’t know it was related to my thyroid or even what a thyroid was.

My doctor put me on medical leave for a while and I found myself suddenly trying to fill up my time with something other than sleeping or Netflix. Most people think medical leave is like a vacation, but it is not. It is devastatingly boring and often leaves me with a feeling of hopelessness. I would choose working over medical leave a hundred times over. I found that it was difficult to focus on anything other than my thoughts. That is until I turned my PlayStation back on.

The Batman Arkham series was always something I had wanted to play because I am such a big comic book and Batman fan. I bought all three games and fired up my PS4 and for once, I could sleep at night because I had mentally exhausted myself with predator maps and riddles. The feeling was pretty close to relief. I was curing my insomnia with gaming and freeing myself from anxious and depressive thoughts.

Accomplishing something, even if it was small puzzles, trophies, or collecting coins made me feel less broken. It made me feel that I had value. I have often commented that I love Fallout 4 is because I was able to immerse myself and get lost in it. The world is so open and massive it is easy to get lost for days at a time. The size of the game was intimidating at first but turned out to be a godsend while on medical leave. Gaming is why I am still alive. I also felt like I was part of a bigger community. I could say I was a hard gamer. I wear that as a badge of honor.

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Recently, in June of 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified ‘gaming disorder’ as a mental health condition in the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases. Dr. Vladimir Poznyak, a member of WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse said, WHO has followed “the trends, the developments, which have taken place in populations and in the professional field” in a CNN article.

While I do believe anyone can become addicted to gaming – like other outlets – I worry that people will be less likely to use gaming as a healthy coping mechanism for anxiety or depression. I would not have felt comfortable enough to seek professional aid and that aid may not have been nearly as effective without the calming nature gaming provided me.

While Poznyak has clarified that “Millions of gamers around the world, even when it comes to the intense gaming, would never qualify as people suffering from gaming disorder.” However, adding the classification of disease to the ICD will more than likely lead to a further stigma on gaming and discourage people from using gaming to quell their own anxious or depressive thoughts.

Some experts also feel the classification is a bit premature. Anthony Bean, a licensed psychologist and executive director at The Telos Project, a nonprofit mental health clinic in Fort Worth, Texas said, “I’m a clinician and a researcher, so I see people who play video games and believe themselves to be on the lines of addicted.” Bean went on to say that most people he has seen are using gaming “more as a coping mechanism for either anxiety or depression.”

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For me, gaming was a coping mechanism and still is. Having a chronic illness, whether it be a mental illness or otherwise, takes a toll on a person’s body and psyche. Video games are an excellent and healthy form of escapism. To this day, when I feel overwhelmingly anxious I play a game. My therapist recommended I continue to play games if they are beneficial to me and curbing my anxiety.

A 2013 study from National Institutes of Health found that video games are often used as a self-treatment for people reluctant to seek out medical care. Dr. Scott Bea, a practitioner of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy and concentrates on anxiety and mood disorders, believes we may even reach a point where a video game could be prescribed to help people with mental illness like a pill. Games can be a fantastic complement to treating anxiety and depression disorders with therapy.

Similarly, a different NIH study found hand-held gaming devices provide a distraction that provides anxiety relief for children. Who is to say that same logic can’t be applied to adults with similar symptoms? In addition, Anxiety Gaming is a nonprofit committed to providing mental health treatment through game consoles by giving at-risk children an outlet for stress.

For me personally, gaming saved my life. I am concerned that the classification of “gaming disorder,” which more or less is just addiction, will deter people from being able to get the help they need and furthermore, discourage people from releasing their anxiety in a healthy manner like I am able to do. While more studies on both sides of the argument need to be done, I know from personal experience that gaming is a good thing. If you are feeling dangerous, anxious or depressive thoughts seek professional help but know that in addition to professional help, I am able to better my mental health through gaming.

1 Comment on “Gaming Helped My Mental Illness, It Didn’t Give Me One”

  1. This is a great perspective on gaming. I’ve heard a lot of the benefits of gaming with problem solving or reaction times etc. But I never came across any of these studies.

    I’d say society has come along from blaming video games for violence… at least it’s been a while since I read or heard anything since numerous debunkings about a decade ago.

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