Superhero therapy: How comic books can help you psychologically

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First aired on Q (10/03/14)

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Batman, Spiderman and Superman may not seem like highly likely names to come up during a patient's therapy session, but one mental health expert says superhero therapy often finds a place in his sessions.

Dr. Patrick O'Connor, a psychologist who currently teaches at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, spoke with CBC's Jian Ghomeshi about his use of superhero therapy.

O'Connor first started thinking about superheroes when he was working with kids in foster care and reflecting on their (what may be) difficult experiences of having to live in someone else's house and eat someone else's food.

It reminded him of the dynamic between Batman and Robin, who essentially became a ward or type of foster child to Bruce Wayne.

cover-bestsellers-300.jpgSo, O'Connor says he went to his local comic book store to see if he could find any individual comic book issues that spoke to these types of challenges in Batman and Robin's relationship.

However, he found the sheer number of comics overwhelming and difficult to navigate through. So, the self-proclaimed light-to-moderate comic book nerd started to catalogue the psychological themes of each comic. He keeps the database online on his site, Comicspedia.

In his practice, O'Connor says he listens for similar themes to surface during sessions with patients. Then he asks a patient who their favourite superhero is. For their next session, he'll bring a comic starring that particular hero which contains the appropriate psychological theme. They read it together, and then he asks the patient to reflect on the story.

"It really got the ball rolling in terms of kind of diving into therapeutic work," he said, especially of his middle-school and teenaged clients.

He said the superhero stories work because the comics take everyday problems and exaggerate them, which makes it immediately relatable.

"It's all about kind of seeing your own story in the stories of others and when it involves superheroes ... it makes it that much more engaging," he explained.

One of the most popular storylines he relies on in his practice is when Batman tells Robin he is acting too juvenile and that he needs to stop spending time with him. Robin then needs to figure out how to be his own person, O'Connor said, which is a perfect adolescent metaphor.

While he acknowledges that most of his clients are younger boys, he said the practice works across age and gender lines.

He said he's used the technique with adults in their 30s and 40s and it has worked quite well.

O'Connor thinks superhero therapy will continue gaining popularity -- after all, he said, drama and art therapists have been using it for decades.

"We want to connect with our clients. We want to be able to speak their language."

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