How Pokémon Go can help fight mental illness
‘I can now walk into a crowded place and pick out people playing Pokémon and know I’m not alone’
Billie Milholland calls it a miracle.
For the first time in years, her granddaughter Eden has been regularly leaving the house despite a crippling social anxiety disorder. What got the teenager out of the house?
Well, a Squirtle, a Geodude, a Cubone, and even a Dratini. The game Milholland is speaking about is Pokémon Go, an augmented reality app. Millions of people have become taken with the game, but for her granddaughter it's a little different.
"It was so emotional, the first couple times I didn't dare believe it would last," Milholland said. "I tell you, I was so torn up I wanted to kiss the feet of the people that created this game."
I tell you, I was so torn up I wanted to kiss the feet of the people that created this game.- Billie Milholland
For the last seven years, Eden has barely been able to leave the house. At times she would have to miss school because of the anxiety she would feel.
"I would feel anxious," Eden said. "I would feel lost and I wouldn't feel comfortable. It just felt like no one really liked me and they were looking at me strange. I just felt anxious about everyone around me."
These days though, the 15-year-old is out exploring her city in the hopes of hatching an egg, finding a pokestop or encountering a Pokémon she's been tracking. And she's not alone in her endeavours.
While it wasn't officially released in Canada until Sunday, there is no denying Pokémon Go has already become a phenomenon in the Great White North and beyond.
The Pokémon company's recent foray into augmented reality has been downloaded several million times and is the most popular mobile game in United States history. With more than 21 million active users daily, technology outlets are reporting that the app has more daily users than twitter and gets more engagement than Facebook.
While the Pokémon characters imposed upon the backdrop are fake, the impact the game may be having on people who suffer anxiety and depression is very real, proponents say.
'It breaks up the cycle'
In the week or so since the game first debuted internationally, Milholland said she's seen a real change in her granddaughter.
"It's been less than a week, she has a cheerfulness about her that she used to have when she was littler," she said. "The cheerful kid we used to know in elementary school is showing flashes of that again.
What it does is, in a sense, it kind of distracts them from the anxiety they would normally feel, it breaks up the cycle.- Dr.Ganz Ferrance
"I think it will have a lasting effect because I think for the kids who have heavy anxiety, what they need is to get out and feel safe again, and they need those experiences and this is giving this to them."
Dr. Ganz Ferrance, an Edmonton psychologist, said the game could work as a positive catalyst for people who suffer from mental illnesses like anxiety, depression and possibly obsessive compulsive disorder.
"When you have a game like this, you are providing a purpose and a structure for the individual when they go out," he said. "What it does is, in a sense, it kind of distracts them from the anxiety they would normally feel, it breaks up the cycle.
"The person then gets the experience of being able to be successful at what they've been avoiding."
These types of illnesses can be caused by a "step-by-step cycle," said Ferrance. He gives the example of someone who is scared of spiders and avoids stairs where they would encounter the spiders.
"It feeds into a circle, you keep avoiding the stairs," he said. "After a while you don't go near stairs. After some more time you don't go anywhere that stairs are, it just keeps getting worse."
But when players have a goal, it becomes easier to ignore their fears because they are focused on doing well in the game.
"All of a sudden you go up the stairs and think 'No spiders went out and got me,' said Ferrance. "Or even if you approached the stairs you won't feel that same anxiety you used to feel. You can actually do things you haven't been able to do before."
'I'm not alone'
Trying to "catch them all" has also helped Craig Versaevel.
Versaevel suffers from depression and social anxiety. He, much like Eden, avoided social interaction to ease the anxiety he felt.
"Most of my days were just spent online either just gaming or just browsing through whatever on the internet, everything from cat videos to rocket science," said Versaevel.
When Versaevel, a Pokémon fan since the first days when the games was released, got the app he started to get outdoors more. After a time, he started to meet people who were also playing the game in Edmonton hot spots like West Edmonton Mall or the legislature grounds.
Versaevel said he has suffered from anxiety attacks when he was in a crowded place. But he's noticed a change recently.
I can now walk into a crowded place and pick out people playing Pokémon and know I'm not alone.- Craig Versaevel
"My introverted ways are slowing down quite a bit and I guess I'm becoming more extroverted in some ways. You see someone go into a random spot and immediately you can say: 'OK, they're playing Pokémon Go' and go up and talk to them about the game," said Versaevel.
"I can now walk into a crowded place and pick out people playing Pokémon and know I'm not alone."
He has since started a Facebook site for Edmonton Pokémon Go players and is organizing a meetup for all the local players — something he previously could never have imagined doing.
Like many other flash fads, it's almost a certainty that Pokémon Go's popularity will wane in the coming months.
But to Milholland, she said the changes she's seen in her granddaughter are profound. She thinks the effects will last.
"Whether or not the game lasts or her interest in the game lasts, each time she's out and actually goes somewhere, each time that happens that does the building blocks for what she needs to feel comfortable in her community," Milholland said.
Eden says she knows that exercise and "just getting out there" helps her depression and anxiety. She said it feels "really nice to be active again." And, much like Versaevel, she said that having a goal and seeing other players has changed her life for the better.
"I feel better just going around now," she said. "It feels nice to go out and there are people playing and I know it's not just me."
Milholland got the chance to thank someone at the Pokémon company personally, after taking to Facebook to express her appreciation for what the game did for her granddaughter.
One of her friends online forwarded the post to Don McGowan, the general counsel to the Pokémon company, who wrote her back.
McGowan told her the hope behind the game was that "a love of Pokémon would get them out exploring their neighbourhood and making friends and getting exercise together.
"It's the spirit behind Pokémon, and it's something we saw as missing in the whole gaming environment. But hearing stories like yours, well, that makes all the late nights and the long hours and the work and everything else feel like nothing."