Mental Health and Other Demons

So. Mental health. It’s a conversation that comes up quite regularly in video gaming circles, and one that I’ve avoided joining in until the past few days. I used to meet the comments I’d read on Twitter with a healthy dose of skepticism. I was half convinced that a good portion of the people claiming mental health were using it as a badge of honour, perhaps even pretending to be “depressed” for the attention that inevitably follows. Well, I’ve changed my stance significantly on this matter, and whilst I don’t doubt there are those who exaggerate their condition, I recognise that a lot of my own life’s issues have been cause by depression and anxiety issues, and so I felt compelled to write about it here, to add my thoughts to the ongoing discussion.

This being a gaming blog, my main focus in these thoughts is on my friends in the gaming community of Twitter. It surprised me a week or so ago, when I casually mentioned my ongoing struggles with anxiety, how many people joined the conversation, and others like it. It seems that a large number of my peers suffer from their own demons, including anxiety, depression, or “worse” conditions. I’m not about to betray their privacy by discussing individual cases here, so I thought I’d write down some thoughts as to why these conditions seem to be so widespread in gamers – if we assume they’re not as widespread in our society at large, which they might well be.

The obvious answer to me is that video games provide an escape. That cliched t-shirt, which reads “I don’t play games because I have no life, I play because I want many” (or something like that), sums up the appeal of gaming to many of its fans – the ability to absorb yourself in a world that is not the real one. For many people this is not simply for entertainments sake, but also for the therapeutic nature of removing yourself from a place for a while, perhaps leaving your baggage behind. Relieving stress by shooting enemy soldiers, or by focussing your mind on steering a car at 200mph around a track, or even a good puzzle game that exercises your brain. Enjoying a second life in a massive Role Playing Game such as World of Warcraft or… Second Life, where you can project any personality you see fit, being someone else for a while. The film Reign Over Me explores this idea with some success, following a character who lost his wife and child and copes by withdrawing into Shadow of the Colossus.

Video games can soothe depression, or associated feelings of worthlessness, by creating a sense of purpose in a virtual life. Overcoming the odds, defeating evil, saving the world are all noble pursuits that may be out of reach to us mortals, but gaming gives us the tools to achieve.

Besides anything else, video games are a hobby. Hobbies have long been used to pass the time, and ours is no different. Simply occupying yourself with a pursuit that you find fun can have tremendously positive effects on the human mind. Simply staving off boredom can have powerful, positive effects. A side effect of hobbies is the ability to share them with others of like mind. Particularly in this day of online social media, those of us who may struggle with the idea of going out to a hobby group have an opportunity to communicate and to be part of something – another important facet of recovery, or at least of coping.

I’ve struggled through my life as a fan of video games as something of an outsider. Even those friends who play games do so as a casual time waster on a Sunday evening, and don’t understand my desire to experience as many games as possible, and certainly can’t grasp the concept that I will eventually buy every console of a period so I can experience every game that I want (such as right now, when my PlayStation 4 is my main console of this generation, the one for which I buy most games, yet I have also a Switch and an Xbox One to enjoy those games only available on those systems. It’s no different to the fact that I used to have a little hot hatch that lived in our garage, for a weekly spin into the countryside, whilst keeping a less-thirsty daily runner on the drive for daily use. It’s no different than the fact I have several guitars, each tuned differently depending on which band I’m using it with. It’s no different to having a biro for writing and a drawing pen for drawing. Yet just about everyone I know perceives it differently, and as such in a weird way video games have isolated me further from the world, which kind of detracts from a point I made above…

The point is, I suppose, that mental health is a complex issue. We sufferers can have a hard enough time understanding what is happening in our minds, without the stigma attached that makes people shut their feelings away instead of at least trying to deal with them. It’s great that people have a platform, and feel comfortable to discuss these things in the modern day, but from my own experience I can say there’s a long way to go. My own doctor once laughed when I said I thought I was suffering depression. She said I didn’t look depressed. I left, wondering what on earth I was to do, when even the person who is there to care doesn’t. I tried to speak to my own mum about it, but she didn’t understand. It made her uncomfortable, and she wouldn’t acknowledge what I was saying.

Until we can have an open, frank discussion on this matter, I don’t think we’ll find the answers. I’ve struggled for nearly four decades, mostly alone, and I’ve seen friends and family suffer too, whilst hearing derisive comments under the breath of those who should care. I do believe it’s fear rather than disgust that fuels the negative reactions, a similar fear that makes people afraid of people who have a different skin colour, or some from a different culture, or who simply dress differently. A fear rooted in a small mind then, but unfortunately a common one.

In closing, I just want to ask one thing of you, reader. When someone mentions a mental health issue, don’t assume they’re making it up, as I once was prone to do. Don’t reject them out of fear or lack of understanding of the issues they face. You honestly don’t need to understand. Just be there. Be a friend, listen to them, and you may just be doing something incredibly kind – letting them talk about their feelings without ridicule. That could be the best thing you ever do for someone.

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