What if I told you there was a new treatment being used to relieve depression and anxiety, and its side effects include improved fitness, weight loss and social integration? The ‘wonder drug’ in question is a smartphone game called Pokemon Go and you’re going to hear a lot about it
Almost 20 years after the Pokémon craze took over the UK (and my heart) the new incarnation of the format is fast becoming a global phenomenon. Critics say Pokémon GO is dangerous, leaving users vulnerable to injury and exploitation, but many others have said the game has revolutionised their lives and levelled up their mental health.
“Many who identified as suffering with depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia and forms of personality disorder cited the game as enabling them to leave the house and begin to interact both with friends and strangers”
Pokémon GO went live in the UK last week and you will have probably struggled to avoid it and the ensuing army of wannabe Pokémon ’trainers’. Described as an ’augmented reality’ game, it brings together the physical and virtual worlds as players explore their local area and catch creatures displayed a-top real-world scenery via your phone’s camera link. Location is monitored via GPS and prompts in the game direct you to sites of interest where you can collect items, battle other players and catch the famous Pokémon.
This is all well and good but why am I telling you about it? Well, a quick look at social media shows some impressive consequences of playing the game.
Since its launch, Twitter and Facebook have been flooded with stories about the positive impact Pokémon GO has had on players’ mental health. Many who identified as suffering with depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia and forms of personality disorder cited the game as enabling them to leave the house and begin to interact both with friends and strangers. Many have reported weight loss and huge boosts to their self-esteem since starting to play. Some even stated that Pokémon GO had been more effective than medication and hospitalisation.
“The winning formula for Pokémon GO is that it encourages physical activity and it brings people together”
The winning formula for Pokémon GO is that it encourages physical activity, which is consistently proven to be excellent for a person’s mental health, and it brings people together. However, as simple as these two concepts are, both are often impossible to contemplate - and even less do - for people suffering with depression and anxiety.
Dr John Grohol, founder of the mental health network Psych Central and an expert on online behaviour and its effect upon mental wellbeing, says whilst developers did not set out to create a mental health gaming app, they have effectively done so. He remarks that the physicality and purpose that Pokémon GO incorporates, provide more immediate and lasting effects than other popular mood-altering apps, which typically rely upon mood-tracking and positive affirmations and which tend to only be used for a week before interest wanes.
According to suicide-prevention organisation Take This, the video game community has also long been a draw for people with undiagnosed and untreated mental health problems. They state that, whilst the game is an excellent motivator to leave the house and engage with others, it is not a substitute for professional help. Dr Grohol similarly advocates its use alongside psychological and pharmacological treatments and rather than in isolation.
Pokémon GO is not without its drawbacks: reports of related injuries are skyrocketing and there are calls from organisations such as the NSPCC that young, vulnerable users may be lured into the path of those who wish to hurt or exploit them. There was also the gruesome recent story of a woman who stumbled upon a dead body whilst playing. Finally, many glitches in the app still need to be ironed out. For instance, the server often overloads leaving players unable to access the game, or quirks in the algorithm mean some areas are totally without inhabitation leaving geographically isolated players without contact with other humans or Pokémon, likely compounding rather than eroding feelings of loneliness.
”I assume this is the kind of buzz that people with more patience than me find in adult colouring books and on exercise bikes”
Despite this, the growing anecdotal evidence states that Pokémon GO is a clear benefit to players’ mental health. I have met many other staff and service users finding joy in the game and as a young, hopeful trainer I can definitely vouch for a boost in my mood and fitness. I assume this is the kind of buzz that people with more patience than me find in adult colouring books and on exercise bikes.
As a student nurse, Pokémon GO helps me to appreciate the importance of taking small steps to improve your wellbeing, and offers me inspiration for the use of technology to improve the lives of the people in our care.
Rather than a miracle cure-all, it’s better to consider Pokémon GO as an introduction to self-care for people with and without mental health diagnoses; a stepping stone towards happier, healthier habits.
Now, I really must get back to my dissertation - just as soon as I get my hands on that Chansey.
Hazel Nash is Student Nursing Times’ student editor, mental health branch.
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