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How To 'Level Up' In Psychotherapy

A new mental health program seeking to help veterans combat depression is using a classic video game concept - 'leveling up'.

Dunlap realized that this concept could also help people recovering from injuries or other trauma by making the big goal — recovery — into a series of fun, smaller tasks. Adding a gaming element to the therapy helps people focus on smaller accomplishments, she said.

“It’s about giving yourself some kind of way to make it through without getting bogged down, as opposed to something big and terrible,” said Dunlap, who is a doctoral candidate at the American School of Professional Psychology. “One of the biggest struggles is motivation. Video games do that really, really well [and] keep you trying even though you know what you’re doing is difficult.”

She is now testing that theory in the mental health clinic of the veterans hospital where she holds weekly meetings with a small group of veterans who are dealing with issues such as depression, often while rehabilitating from physical injuries as well.

The program emphasizes building emotional resilience among the soldiers. Early in the program, she said, showing up can earn someone a point. “Showing up, in recovery, is the biggest step,” she said. “At first, if you show up you get a point. Then there are weekly challenges.”

As patients progress, they have to do more to attain the next level and gain the next reward, as players often have to do in games. The challenges might be as simple as doing something you enjoy during the week.

Psychotherapists have been paying attention to both gaming and science fiction. The technique of "projective psychotherapy", pioneered by A. James Giannini, M.D, used sf great Philip Jose Farmer's World of Tiers books as the jumping off point.

Farmer then worked with Giannini to create a new novel in the series. Red Orc's Rage, published in 1991, tells the fictional account of an adolescent using Tiersian therapy to get better:

"THE TIERSIAN THERAPY patients form a small and elite volunteer group," Doctor Porsena said. "Usually, they start out with volume one, The Maker of Universes, and read the rest in proper sequence. They choose a character in the books and try to BE that character. They adopt all the mental and emotional characteristics of the role model whether they're good or bad. As therapy progresses, they come to a point where they start getting rid of the bad qualities of the character they've chosen. But they keep the good features.

"It's rather like a snake shedding its skin. The patient's uncontrolled delusions, the undesirable emotional factors which brought him or her here, are gradually replaced by controlled delusions. The controlled delusions are those which the patient adopts when he or she becomes, in a sense, the character in the series.

More recently, a London psychotherapist began offering therapy within World of Warcraft. Also, see this article on Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy For Iraq Vets.

Via the Washington Post; thanks to Blue Monkey for the tip and the reference on this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 11/3/2012)

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