The Executive Coordinator of the Fountain Hill Center, Amy Van Gunst, asks her 17 year old son, “Hey what do you hear about Pokémon Go?”
He responds, “Well, I hear it gets people up and moving around.”
“I thought it was interesting,” Amy says, “That he didn’t tell me anything about the game first.”
A lot of folks are having a similar experience. In the short week since its release, the video game has produced more than a million stories about mental health. Actually, it’s the gamers producing these stories. And they’re positive, and point us to some of the really good changes happening in the world of mental health.
We still operate with a lot of worn out ideas about what it means to be mentally strong and healthy – and when we think of therapy, it’s probably still Freud’s couch that comes to most of our minds. But the therapeutic landscape is dramatically changing, and the Pokémon Go stories indicate just how much.
One of the most interesting parts of the Pokémon Go/mental health picture is that it’s driven by gamers reporting on social media that they feel better and more mentally healthy. “It’s really good to see people talking like this,” says Fountain Hill Center Therapist, Otha Brown, “Because mental health isn’t just about coming into my office and fixing your problems. Mental Health is about getting out there, getting to know people – it’s about enjoying your life.”
Over the last few years, the mental health community has produced a bevy of virtual and electronic resources that make use of the technological landscape to encourage people to become more actively aware that mental health affects us. Also, reaching out, forming new social connections (even with a therapist) is often one of the biggest difficulties for folks dealing with a mental illness. One of the hopes of these recent trends is that the anonymity of technology and virtual spaces will help people overcome this hurdle.
“One of the things that probably makes this game helpful to people,” says Randy Flood, Director of the Men’s Resource Center, “is that it has interactive features and allows gamers to form a social network, encounter each other, and create affiliation. This is very beneficial for individuals who struggle with isolation and loneliness or mental health issues.”
In general, we tend to think that this is precisely not what video games do, but the game’s blend of real time activity and virtual rewards seems to be creating just the right balance. Amy thinks that “what people seem to be saying about the game is that it provides them motivation to get up and outside. They’re working towards a goal without having to force social interaction which is often a barrier for folks struggling with depression and/or anxiety.”
Catching Them All
What we do as therapists is help folks adjust unhealthy patterns (of thought, activity, diet, behavior, relationship, consumption, you name it). So they can move into stories, behaviors, and relationships that are more meaningful and vibrant. This game seems to be helping us out a bit.
Interrupting a forbidding place – a social scene, a public space, where a person might normally feel awkward, anxious, and like they don’t add much to the scenario – with a brightly colored fantasy creature our phone catches with a “Poke-ball” is actually a pretty good metaphor for the work we do in our offices.
“What I am so often trying to do,” says Amy, “is inspire clients to find their motivation and reshape the way they look at and act in the world around them. Being able to connect to something powerful inside us – a desire, a goal, is what we need to change behaviors that are harmful, or that stem from mental illness. It seems like this game gives folks the option of working towards a goal of finding something, and that motivation is powerful enough to create behavior change that medications and talk therapy are not always able to do.”
For Randy, this is about understanding a mental illness’s potential to remove people from a sense of purpose, “A mental health crisis is an existential crisis, begging the soul/psyche/body to ‘get up and move around’…Move our bodies, our minds, our emotions and our social circles in new and integral ways. The purpose of the game overrides the propensity for lethargy and anhedonia often present in mental illness. Breaking into these habits through the game can give people the momentum they need to find it elsewhere.”
Mental well being has a lot to do with options. We need to feeling like we can understand and reach our potentials. We need to be comfortable connecting with folks. We need to have the confidence to try something new, and the stamina to keep up with routines and responsibilities. “When folks realize that staying well mentally isn’t about someone telling you what’s wrong with your head, but has to do with how you can take on your life, then it doesn’t seem impossible,” says Otha, “It seems like something you can do.”