Pokemon Go: How viral game helps youth cope with mental health issues, social anxiety

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While catching Pokemon and heading to Pokestops may sound trivial, doctors say Pokemon Go could be helping young adults deal with mental health issues from depression to social anxiety and withdrawal.

By playing, those grappling with mental health concerns are heading outdoors, engaging with their peers who are sharing a common ground and a sense of community while keeping some semblance of familiarity and comfort through the game, experts say.

“Pokemon Go has a great upside to it. It has the potential to bring you right into contact with other people who have this common interest and you have a built-in conversation starter, a chance to interact face-to-face,” Dr. Larry Nelson, a Brigham Young University professor in family life, told Global News.

READ MORE: Here’s how Canadians are playing Pokemon Go

Dr. Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based registered psychologist and Ryerson University instructor, said that a handful of his patients have turned to the game.

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“For someone who has serious depression, we know that getting exercise, walking around, getting exposure to the sun helps to counteract the physiological effects of depression,” Amitay said.

“For the socially anxious patient, they’re talking to people. It may be game-related but it’s almost like going to a Halloween party in a costume, it gives you an illusion of safety and a buffer where they feel they can talk when they normally wouldn’t be able to,” Amitay explained.

READ MORE: How to play Pokemon Go

Pokemon Go is a virtual reality game that’s captivated smartphone users around the world since its release earlier this month. It was launched in Canada on Monday.

Using an avatar, Pokemon trainers appear on a digital map, mirroring your movements as tracked by your phone.

By walking around your neighbourhood, you’ll come across Pokemon to capture, PokeStops to load up on equipment, and PokeGyms where you can battle your Pokemon with peers.

In Nelson’s latest research, he formed three categories of socially withdrawn people:

  • Shy: When a person wants to be social but is held back by fear
  • Unsocial: When a person has no problem being social but prefers to be alone
  • Avoidant: When a person does everything they can to avoid social interaction

His concern is that those who are socially withdrawn, especially in the avoidant group, may be relying too heavily on media, such as video games instead of honing their social skills.

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READ MORE: Playing Pokemon Go may be beneficial to your health

“Young adulthood is a time in the lifespan where people get to do whatever they want with their time more than ever before. There’s more autonomy to do what you want, when you want and for how long you want,” Nelson said.

“If young people, including these avoidant individuals, are choosing to do what’s comfortable for them and that’s avoiding social settings and just playing games, it doesn’t bode well for them,” he said.

His suggestion is to take up “challenging but achievable” goals, such as knocking on your professor’s door to ask a question about an assignment, going on a date or attending a job fair with your resumé in hand.

Pokemon Go may be a great stepping stone with helping youth interact, especially if they’re exploring the virtual Pokemon world outdoors with a friend or striking up conversations with others while making a stop, Nelson said.

But if you’re dealing with serious mental health issues, don’t treat the game as a Band-Aid solution, Amitay warned.

“This is a good step but it’s not a cure or the be-all-and-end-all,” he said.

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