Gaming is the newest therapeutic tool for mental health professionals

To some, excessive Vegas casino gaming is a disorder -- an addiction no different than alcohol or substance abuse. To a growing body of mental health professionals however, gaming is a tool that can be used to benefit one’s mental health.

Excessive

When someone plays computer games excessively, they are deemed to have a condition that occurs from prioritizing gaming over daily activities and other interests to the extent that it results in negative consequences. However, new studies have been conducted that indicate that playing computer games may actually benefit your health.

No one is denying that gaming addiction is not a reality and shouldn’t be addressed. At the same time, gaming is increasingly being used in counseling and mental health settings. Therapists report that gaming may lead to improved brain function and shows promise in efforts to reduce stress and anxiety. There seem to be numerous benefits to using gaming — in tandem with medication and other treatment methods — with  patients with mental health disorders, from PTSD to anxiety to depression. 

Game Theory

Game theory was introduced in 1975. The theory is often citied as the basis for the belief that using video games in therapy for specific disorders can be effective. That includes anxiety disorders which are the most common type of mental disorders in the United States.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that approximately 40 million people are affected by anxiety or depression in the U.S., yet only about a third of affected individuals receive treatment.  Yet, says the Association, the disorders are highly treatable. As therapists continue to search for additional treatment options, many have found that the benefits of gaming as a form of treatment show significant results.

A study at Bradley University, “How Gamification Can Be Used in Counseling,” shows that when patients play games, they feel unencumbered by normal, daily pressures. According to the report, "Gamification is one emerging trend that counselors can experiment with to reach tech-savvy clients.” When the patient feels able to more freely express himself, mental health professionals can more easily get to the root of the patient’s disorder and thus, facilitate a more effective treatment plan.

Youth

The biggest gamers are young people and gaming therapy has been found to be especially helpful in treating this population.  Children, teens and young adults are used to interacting with technology and do so constantly through the course of their day.  When games are introduced in a therapy or counseling session it can help them to relieve their stress which gives them the confidence to open up more fully.

Alternately, the therapist can have the patient play a cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)-based game.  That activity challenges the individual to progress past milestones in order to collect rewards.  As these games continue to evolve, they are increasingly effective in this setting.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality allows users to interact with their environment in a way that makes the game seem real.  Mental health professionals have been experimenting with the tech in counseling settings. An immersive DEEP-VR experience was launched in 2016 by a team of game designers who created a soothing underwater experience that helps patients combat symptoms of stress and anxiety.  Called “DEEP”, the atmosphere is controlled by the user’s breath which guides their movements and leads them further into an exploration of the surroundings.

The game mechanics of DEEP “encourage users to practice tolerating, managing, and eventually overcoming, feelings of anxiety and depression.” Therapists can then teach patients how to use the breathing techniques that they develop in DEEP to help overcome symptoms in real-world settings.

Some army veterans living with PTSD have reported that exposure therapy is an effective means of treatment.  Such treatment can be performed with help from VR tech. Exposure therapy involves bringing a patient back to the memory of the trauma repeatedly until the situation is no longer triggering. In treating veterans, for instance, the individual remains in a physically safe area while VR transports him back to the combat zone. This is used to provide symptom relief and closure. 

Future

The gaming industry continues to develop at a quick pace. Therapists anticipate new types of gaming experiences that will help them in their counseling and therapy sessions. In fact, some game designers keep in mind how their games can help mental health sufferers while they design the games. Some designers have studied the feelings and emotions associated with playing video games for that purpose.

Teachers and trainers of mental health professionals would like all developers to have at least a basic understanding of common types of mental illnesses and to be aware of how patients respond so that games can be created that will meet the needs of those in distress.

Expansion

As the gaming industry continues to evolve and expand, more mental health patients can expect to find relief through gamification. Mental health professionals would like to see game designers keeping the needs of all users, including the mentally ill, in mind as they continue to develop immersive experiences and new games.

At the same time, mental health professionals should be aware that they can integrate gaming therapy into their treatment plans. Further studies will be able to shed light on exactly which conditions can benefit the most from gamification to give therapists tools and skills for using these games most effectively.

 

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