You know what sucks? Well yes, there’re a lot of things that suck, but right now let's talk about mental health problems.
If you're unfamiliar with what constitutes a mental health problem; they can cover a whole host of different issues. They could include: anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, personality disorders or phobias. Additionally, many mental health problems have physical implications. We ALL have mental health. It’s just that, for some people, their mental health might be better than others.
You may or may not know that it is Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK and Mental Health Awareness month around in the U.S. The time is dedicated to raise awareness and to reduce the stigma and discrimination that nine out of ten people with mental health problems experience. It’s also about bringing parity to healthcare services; people with mental health problems are treated with the same respect and dignity that those with physical health problems receive.
The problem with mental health issues is that it isn’t as cut and dry as giving someone a course of medication. Though medication can certainly help many people with a mental health condition, it certainly is not the cure. In fact, for many people suffering with a mental health problem, there isn’t a cure in the traditional sense. Sometimes, it is more of a recovery path that leads to a point where a person can function and live their life, in spite of said condition. Many people cite “talking therapies” as much more important and valuable than medication.
“Talking therapies” cover the broad range of psychological therapies that involve communication, social exposure and plans that revolve around getting to the route of the problem. Arguably, medication does not treat a mental health problem; they help suppress negative symptoms that occur as a result of the condition that the person is experiencing. It helps you cope with what’s going on so you can remain functional and not be completely debilitated by your condition and what is going on in your head. Of course, if you stopped taking the medication without any sort of other treatment then you are indeed unlikely to be any better than you were before.
Mental health medication is often thought of as highly experimental (at one point they only required a 40% success rate to be approved for use). some of this is because every single person’s brain chemistry will be slightly different and influenced by their upbringing and experiences; some people will have to try several medications before they find one that works. Because of this many people will find solace and reprise from what is troubling them in a variety of other factors. Just like anyone else; some like a hot shower, some prefer a cold bath. Some people will go for a run and others will hide themselves under their duvet until they feel better. The difference being that someone with a mental health problem may be physically and emotionally drained for a much longer time.
Alas, talking therapies are not cheap and are therefore not the go to option when someone needs help with their mental health. Medication is often cheaper and easier to prescribe. Plus, there just isn’t the adequate number of talking therapists out there who can help provide the much-needed alternative. Given the high number of side-effects that come from medication (increase in depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, increased hunger, hyper-salivation [drooling] and more) it is no wonder that people are really passionate in facilitating as many alternatives as possible.
(Check out the terrifying video below):
This is where many charities and other services come in. When cash strapped systems are unable to provide the needed service, private companies or charities often step up and fill the void. There are many charities that provide a space for people to feel comfortable and able to talk and be themselves; including the opportunity to express themselves in their chosen medium, such as music and art.
Of course, the flaw in this reliance on other organizations is that there is no guarantee your area will have the support or that you’ll know the help is there. Quite often in health related services we tend not to know services exist unless we know to look for them. On the flip side of that, there are those who don’t feel able to get out there and make it to these services such as people who are living with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, or agoraphobia. That’s just off the top of my head too. This is where those self-treatments are essential; those hobbies and things we do to make ourselves feel better.
For many people, it is gaming. More and more, people are starting to see the good that gaming can do in helping people and I hope to talk about those in further instalments of “The Good in Gaming”. For now I want to focus on how online gaming can help those who may suffer from mental health problems.
Think about online gaming. Consider, if you will, how you feel and how you play online. Do you play online with people you know? Are they personal friends or did you meet them online and they became your online friends? You could be a ‘random lover’ (new term, go with it), someone who just jumps into games with strangers. Or do you not play online games at all?
Think about how these different groups of people might affect your mental wellbeing. These are generalized of course; everyone’s situation is very different. Additionally, you're unlikely to just stay in one category also, your mood and mental state may well dictate how you might interact. Of course, these can apply whether you experience a mental health problem or not.
People you know (Offline + Online friends)
Ok, so you play online with people you know. They’re your friends, maybe you don’t get to see them as often as you would like. Whilst you’re playing you get to catch up, share stories and talk about what is going on in your life. You have in-jokes and ‘banter’, you feel comfortable in playing online with these guys and it’s certainly a distraction from the day-to-day humdrum. It’s nice to have a catch, especially as some of your friends live a long way away now and you can’t just pop to the local pub for a chinwag. They are also able to offer you some support and it’s more natural than chatting over text message. You’re having fun too, much better than twiddling your thumbs on a phone call.
Online acquaintances (Online friends)
Maybe friends of friends? You meet new people, that’s a big deal for you, you’ve stuck with it, despite now even knowing what they look like. But hey, they might feel the same way, you still control what information you share. Besides, it’s always good to have more options of people to play with in case your closer friends aren’t online. Your mates trust them, to play online with, so they must be alright. They want to play with you too, which is always a good thing. You’ve also connected with these friends on social media and via gaming related groups. You’re socializing more, which is something you don’t do enough of.
‘Random Lover’ (Online)
If you suffer with anxiety or self-esteem issues, you may well be more hesitant to just play with randomers. They are scary; you don’t know who they are and what they might say. Will they judge you for how you play? You don’t get their humor and you can’t tell if they are joking or having a laugh with you. Eventually you might feel confident enough to do so; not use your mic and just play some online games. You still feel overly guilty and anxious about messing up or making a mistake because you don’t feel you can laugh it off with your mates, they aren’t there. On the flipside, people don’t know who you are, you’re technically anonymous, you can enjoy this without worrying about your actions and just feel comfortable in playing the game. You’re pretty good at Battlefield 1 as it happens, let’s go!
Single player (Offline)
Online games aren’t for you. Too many kids telling you to go “f*** myself” and explaining the sexual prowess of your mother. You don’t feel you do very well under pressure and that’s a lot of hassle to try have some fun. You’d rather play games like The Witcher 3 and Skyrim. Though you wish you had someone to talk to; maybe you don’t feel confident in going out really. Your friends are usually quite busy and many don’t bother with gaming much.
As I noted earlier, gaming is becoming more acknowledged as a source of respite for people with mental health conditions. Of course, there are people who are also afflicted by gaming. I was inspired to write this piece after looking through an article on Platinum Paragon on a similar subject. In it, the writer breaks down an article that researched the impact of gaming on people’s psychological wellbeing.
There is reference to the Diagnostic Statistics Manual V (DSM V) which is the psychiatrist’s handbook on mental disorders (International Classification of Diseases-10 (ICD-10) in Europe and the UK). In it, it makes reference to Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) which, although still in research and not confirmed as an actual condition, speaks of an obsession with online games. It also notes that using the game as a coping or escape mechanism is a symptom of IGD.
I have a problem with this, as did the original author on Platinum Paragon. A person’s choice to escape from their reality (in whatever form that might be) does not make it a disorder. There are many reasons why a person may choose an escape. It would need to be a problem, or be all-consuming to be considered a disorder, in my eyes. This is discussed in the research article also and it considers what needs to be done in order for IGD to be recognized as a mental health problem, under the addictive behaviors category.
The results of this study broke down players into various categories based on their prevalence to game (normal levels, extensive, problematic, at risk (of depressive symptoms)). The results may be what you expect:
- Gamers who play a lot online and form good friendships online (even to a level when it is problematic) did not experience depressive symptoms, feelings of loneliness or anxiety, despite having low levels of “offline” friendships (real world friendships) and being at a higher risk of experiencing depressive symptoms, according to the DSM.
- It also noted that female gamers who play online are less lonely and anxious than those who do not play games at all.
So what’s the importance of this? Well firstly it shows that games can help people who are at risk of depressive symptoms; including anxiety, social isolation, low self-esteem, even if their pool of real friends is small. Additionally there is some actual research out there that backs this up. Psychiatrists assessing gaming going forward, however, need to acknowledge both the good and the bad it can do. It is certainly heartening though.
So what was the point of all of this? It’s to emphasize that whether it be music, reading, knitting, cooking or gaming, people will find outlets for their neuroses, whatever they may be. Medication maybe the first port of call when helping mental health problems, but learning how to keep yourself busy is important. Especially if it something that helps you socialize, connect and feel good. Gaming isn't necessarily the socially isolative medium that some will have you believe. For some, it is more socially integrative than they might ever experience without it and that is a truly powerful thing.
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