Pokémon Go is helping those with mental health issues
On July 7th, Pokémon Go swept the nation causing people to, quite literally, stop in their tracks.
Animated creatures captivated both young and old, and players the country over could be seen glued to their phones trawling cities and neighbourhoods in pursuit of ‘Polywhirls’ and ‘Psyducks’.
In fact, the game gained momentum and popularity so quickly that even the police got in on the act – although, on their behalf, it was to issue warnings related to ‘don’t Pokémon Go and drive’.
However, the game is not attracting attention for its addictive and fun nature alone. It’s also attracting attention in relation to the positive impact it’s having on people’s mental health.
In the last week many users have taken to social media to highlight how it’s helping relieve them of anxiety and depression.
@gleefullyhello tweeted ‘#Pokémon Go has already been a better treatment for my depression than anything my doctor prescribed or therapist recommended”
Australian Twitter user Lara @38Violetqueen has also been vocal in how the game is helping her.
“I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder four months ago, and have suffered with depression and anxiety for eight years,” she says.
“I have rapid mood changes and trouble regulating my emotions, but since playing Pokémon Go I have felt more positive.”
Lara attributes this to the game forcing her to get out in the fresh air and walk.
“When you have depression it’s hard to find the motivation to exercise no matter what the doctors say, but with this you have no excuse,” she says. “Plus you don’t have to be worried that you look silly, because everyone looks silly with you.”
Jocelyn Brewer is a psychologist with an expertise in technology. She’s not overly surprised that lots of people are making this link.
She notes that mood is impacted by a combination of serotonin, which is linked to pleasure and pain avoidance, dopamine, which is linked to reward and motivation, and adrenaline, which linked to energy and concentration.
Therefore, she says you can imagine why Pokémon Go is tapping into these and providing positives.
“There are a number of positive anecdotes emerging that it’s sparked changes in people’s habits,” she says.
“They might be moving more, meeting more people, feeling more positive or engaged and feeling like they have more purpose – even if it is to catch ‘fake’ monsters!”
Brewer says that for sufferers of anxiety, the game provides an opportunity to be exposed to the trigger of the anxiety. In the case of social anxiety this is a social setting and people.
“The fact that the people you meet have a common interest and goal is like social glue which helps you connect and have positive experiences,” she says.
Similarly, when it comes to sufferers of depression she notes that it may be linked to engagement and having something to look forward to.
“For some this might be about the frivolity and pure fun of it and the connection that you get from feeling like you’re part of something,” she says.
She notes that there’s also potentially a link between playing the game and exercising.
Despite this, Brewer notes that it’s too early to tell if these benefits are real or more of a placebo.
“We need to do rigorous research and control for the type and severity of mental health problems people have and then control for the way the game is used,” she says.
“It might be ‘real’ for some people with certain types of conditions, but not as effective (especially in the long term) for others.”
She also notes that anecdotes, while positive and in some cases quite inspiring, don’t make for scientific evidence and so we need to be careful of extrapolating single examples into wider ‘proof’.
Psychiatry registrar, Jennifer Hazel, a psychiatry registrar and founder CheckPoint, an organisation that acts to connect the fields of mental health and video game development.
Hazel, along with CheckPoint colleague, Jane Cocks, is currently conducting an informal survey on the impact that Pokémon Go has had on users’ mental health.
“We’ve had 700 responses so far, and the vast majority feel the app has improved (73.4 per cent) or is neutral to (20.8 per cent) their mental health,” says Hazel.
Hazel notes that this is consistent with other informal social studies that they have previously conducted.
So do her and Cocks think that this could open the door to more games and apps being developed with mental health improvement in mind?
“Yes, absolutely,” says Cocks. “There’s already a growing industry of games that are designed for purposes other than pure entertainment called Serious Games, and research suggests that many of them are seriously successful.”
“We plan to bridge health interventions and gaming technology in the future by developing VR gaming interventions for mental health and wellbeing,” she adds.
“The future of games and health in partnership is a very exciting and growing field, and we are thrilled to be a part of that.”
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