PAX AUSTRALIA has taken amazing strides forward to assist individuals having a hard time coping with everything on their mind. Samantha Chew investigates the convention’s commitment to mental health aid this year.
UPDATE: Our friends over at Checkpoint have started their very own web series aimed at helping raise awareness about mental health and how video games can help. Head on over to their Kickstarter campaign here to find out more and give them a helping hand!
One of the most common answers to the question, “How are you?”, is simply “I’m fine”. But sometimes, we default into that answer because it can be difficult to admit that we’re perhaps not feeling so fine. So why do we find it hard to tell someone when we’re not feeling okay?
Perhaps it’s the broad nature of the problems and illnesses associated with mental health? Though they may appear intangible, studies have shown that one in five Australians has experienced some form of mental illness. Or perhaps culture is a factor? Coming from a background where mental health problems aren’t acknowledged, I remember being told as a child that any mental problems were “just a phase” and that I “should just get over it”.
For the most part, it can be agreed that there is a general stigma around mental health that exists. But nerds have sought to change this perception as this year’s edition of PAX Australia took an even further concerted effort to address the mental health of individuals within the gaming community than previous years.
The AFK Room
Recognising that it might not be easy to seek immediate help, this year’s PAX Australia once again implemented the AFK Room; a quiet location within the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre where convention-goers and volunteers could recharge if they felt overwhelmed by the dazzling convention atmosphere.
The room, an initiative organised by non-profit charity Take This, was designed to calm gamers and give them an avenue where they could seek help for any mental-related issues, as Shannon Gerritzen, Co-Executive Director of Take This, explained.
“We want to give you the equivalent of a first aid room. So, you know you can go to the first aid station for a cut, Take This is the first aid station for if you need a band-aid for emotional distress,” she said.
Derived from a quote from popular 1986 game, The Legend of Zelda, the organisation’s name is fitting as it is indeed dangerous to go alone in the battle against mental health. Ms Gerritzen strongly feels that all conventions should follow suit and have a safe space for attendees to relax in.
“We want to make sure you have some sort of guide on how to seek help past Sunday. We’re only here Friday, Saturday and Sunday but what happens to folks on Monday?,” she said.
The AFK Room itself is filled with colouring books for mindfulness and clinical psychologists and volunteers who aim to provide outreach, resources and education for those in need.
Raffael Boccamazzo, aka Doctor B, was the resident clinical director — or rather the ‘Arch Psychomancer’ — on site during PAX Australia 2016 and was responsible for ensuring people got to the right channels for the help they needed.
“If you see someone with crutches, you treat them as someone who has something going on for them. It’s not good, it’s not bad but it’s just a thing. But with mental illness it’s so invisible a lot of the time that it’s easy for a lot of people to basically dismiss it,” he says.
Meaningful panels: Raising awareness of and facilitating discussion around mental health
Elsewhere during PAX Australia 2016, mental health became a key topic for panel discussions.
Debates on mental health and games have surrounded the gaming industry for years. Are games too focused on escapism? Do they promote violence? But for every ‘bad’ story that attempts to link games with mental health problems, there’s a good story about the lives that have been saved by gaming.
During PAX weekend, many of the panels explored how gaming might influence mental health, ways to create safe spaces for nerds, and more. CheckPoint, an Australian organisation entrenched in the research of games that improve mental health, was well represented in almost every one of these panels. They promote mindfulness through games, run workshops and, similar to how you would reach save points in games, CheckPoint also works to help individuals reach mindfulness goals through playing games.
Jane Cocks, co-founder and director of CheckPoint, placed emphasis on the work CheckPoint does with game developers to ensure correct representation of mental health in gaming.
“The typical representation is a person who is crazy or insane in mental asylums but asylums don’t even exist anymore, it’s not a thing. So, let’s stop demonising mental illness and start characterising it sensitively and responsibly,” she says.
Unfortunately, incorrect representation of mental health in games has negatively affected the way people view mental illnesses. The stigma continues to hang over us, preventing a lot of people from getting the help they may need.
“If you have a broken leg and you hobble into work on crutches, it might be funny but you don’t feel ashamed. Whereas if you’re suffering depression, it can be a shameful experience for someone,” Ms Cocks said.
Ms Cocks further explained that games would not be a replacement but would enhance and help patients flourish despite the final boss battle that awaits them — mental illness. Advocates for mindfulness gaming can keep track of CheckPoint’s work and look out for opportunities to volunteer for future studies.
Achievement unlocked: Solutions to mental health for gamers
The Black Dog Institute, a world-leading non-profit organisation for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders, recently introduced the benefits of technology to educate children on mental health with the use of apps, websites and games. It also recognised social media’s power in helping to address the stigma around mental health. So is it strange to think that the most immersive form of digital technology there is, that is gaming, can’t do the same thing?
“We absolutely envisage that interactive technology is going to be a really valuable adjunct to traditional therapy models,” Ms Cocks said.
If you are up to the fight, there are many way to dip your toes into mindfulness with games. CheckPoint even provides a list of games that they have studied and found to be good for people’s mental state. These games range to beautiful and serene escapes like Journey, the plant-growing game Viridi and even the ever-popular Portal (because who wouldn’t want to be able to portal to the kitchen and back?).
Community can also be a pillar of strength, and various safe spaces and online groups catered towards geeks and other special interests may just help you. Having a space where geeks can unite is a great resource in promoting social interaction, which is always good for one’s mental state. Meet up and talk about how much you enjoy Cooking Mama with pride!
And for those of you who can’t seem to find like-minded people around, carry around a geeky token such as a keychain or a badge, and you may just discover the person sitting next to you in your lecture is a geek too!
So next time you’re feeling down, make sure to let someone know that today, you are not okay.
Don’t know where to go for help? Contact ReachOut.com or beyondblue and they’ll direct you to the appropriate resources. Alternatively, if you are a student, look for counseling services within your campus grounds.