By: Erin Ursillo, LMHC, Program Manager for the Young Adult Partial Hospital Program

Within days of its launch, Pokémon GO was everywhere, including our Young Adult Partial Hospital Program. We began seeing patients come in every morning chatting, sharing, and laughing about this new phenomenon. Members of our treatment team began considering the impact this game could have on mental health, particularly in the age group that we serve—ages 18 to 26. As such, we came together to research and discuss the mental health benefits as well as possible drawbacks of playing Pokémon GO.

Potential Benefits:

  • Distraction. One of the coping skills we tend to teach in our program is the idea of distraction. Depression and anxiety symptoms can be all consuming at times so distracting yourself with something you enjoy (in moderation) can serve as a much-needed mental break.
  • Physical activity and Motivation. Depression and anxiety can have a strong negative effect on a person’s motivation and energy levels making it feel seemingly impossible to get up and get moving at times. The impacts of exercise on mood are well known. Pokemon Go promotes physical activity and motivation at the same time since the premise of the game is to search the “real world” for different Pokemon species to capture. The game is based on collecting these virtual prizes, one could also experience a sense of accomplishment which only further enhances motivation.
  • Socialization. Socialization is imperative for mental health and well-being. When people feel connected, they feel less alone. Being a part of a group or a culture like this can also give people a strong sense of belonging. It can be quite a challenge for people to initiate conversations or involve themselves in groups for a variety of reasons (fear, isolation, social skills, feeling inadequate, etc.). Pokemon Go promotes getting out into the community and with the game catching on so quickly, it can be an easy icebreaker as we have witnessed already in our program.

Potential Drawbacks:

  • People can become dependent on one coping skill to manage their symptoms. This can be problematic if the coping skill is excessively utilized, inappropriate to use in certain situations, and does not stimulate growth and insight. Because the game is easily accessible, potential for dependency is high.
  • Gaming of any kind can become problematic if use is excessive, especially for people who may be predisposed to addiction. Concerns arise when gaming impedes upon a person’s ability to function.
  • Avoidance is a maladaptive coping strategy where a person seeks to escape facing a stressor. There is some concern in this area because of how enticing the game is. It is often much more appealing to engage in mindless enjoyment than to deal head on with a stressor.

In the Young Adult Partial Program, we have started to educate patients on these benefits and drawbacks during group discussions and we’ve found that it leads to some very insightful discussions. One patient explained, “I suffer with OCD, mainly obsessive thoughts, so it’s [Pokémon GO] helped me keep my mind occupied. It’s also good because it gets me out of the house. That’s where I feel the worst, is when I’m stuck at home.” We recommend using the app for leisure and socialization while also being conscious of the drawbacks.