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Syft Mental Health Series | Part 1

TW: Mention of ill mental health, suicide, and death.

For the longest time, video games have been in the crosshairs for the supposed negative effects they may have on certain individuals. At the same time, the positive effects of playing video games are becoming more accessible. While it’s important to read the studies, it’s equally important to hear firsthand testimonials on how video games have positively affected people. 

This is my story. 

Syft Mental Health Series Part 1
Syft Mental Health Series | Part 1 6

If you’ve followed my work over at Syft, you’ll know that I’ve been playing video games for almost the entirety of my life. The first video game I ever saw was the original Resident Evil in the mid-to-late 1990s, when I was two. Though Resident Evil scarred me for life – I now hate horror with a passion – I realized then that I wanted to be around video games moving forward. 

Throughout my formative years, I’ve been very fortunate to play so many different consoles and games, though I always found myself drawn to more mature, action-packed games, particularly the Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto series. 

At one point, I was so invested in playing video games that when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare took the world by storm, I legitimately wondered if I could join Major League Gaming (MLG), perhaps the first semblance of modern esports back in 2007. However, two issues arose: one, I couldn’t really devote the proper amount of time to pursue a professional video game career; and two, I was 12 years old. 

Mental Health
This was my jam back in 2007. The remaster? Not so much. Courtesy of Infinity Ward. 

Still, I made it a focus to stay ingrained in the community in some way, shape or form. 

When I was in middle school, I was often teased because I played and always talked about video games to anyone who would listen. When I wasn’t talking about video games, I was either watching G4TV, hopping on the internet to read about E3, or playing Runescape, Club Penguin, or Xbox Live with my friends.

There was just something about video games during my preteen years that made me happy. Even amid the Great Recession, playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 made life more bearable, especially since my family was hit particularly hard when the bubble burst. 

But as I started to get older, my focus shifted from video games to sports, especially in high school and college. 

High school is rough for everyone, but I in particular had to set aside my passion for gaming to develop a new passion for sports, as that was considered “cooler.” Mind you, in the early-to-mid 2010s, video games still had a bad reputation attached to them (for whatever reason.) 

Though I loved playing sports – basketball, soccer, football and baseball in particular – there was just something different about playing video games. Though it’s embarrassing to admit, I recall numerous instances when I stayed home to play video games with some of my friends instead of going to dances, social gatherings, and more. But that’s neither here nor there. 

Mental Health
This game, although not great, was extremely beneficial. Courtesy of 2K.

Once I graduated from high school and started college, video games took even more of a backseat as I devoted even more time to sports. There were times when I went weeks without touching my Xbox One because I was so busy with schoolwork. If I wasn’t doing anything school-related, I was in the gym, trying to be a better basketball player. 

Playing video games used to be a place for me to calm myself down and normalize how I was feeling. As I continued on with my college career, playing games became less of a priority. 

That would soon change, however. 

In my sophomore year, my mental state took a massive dip. At the time, I was working toward a degree in biology with a focus in nursing, and I planned on eventually attending medical school to become a doctor.

Admittedly, I wasn’t truly passionate about being a doctor – writing, sports and video games were my passions – but I knew the medical field was where the money was. Even though I disliked what I was doing, I kept pushing myself because of the money. 

As time went on, the stress of pursuing something I disliked for the wrong reasons began to take a toll. From August to October, I lost more than 20 pounds, rarely slept and began failing my classes. 

My mental health heavily deteriorated. I kept pushing forward, rationalizing that the value of my struggles superseded the money I would soon be making. But like a snowball rolling down a mountain, everything was bound to come crashing down and explode. 

For me, that explosion was Oct. 18, 2015. 

We were in Arizona from Oct. 15-18 to celebrate my mom receiving the first of her many master’s degrees. Throughout the weekend, I remember my heart racing and my thoughts wandering. Particularly, thoughts of death and dying kept bombarding me to the point where I couldn’t even eat without feeling sick. 

Even as my mom walked across the stage, smiling from ear to ear as she clasped onto her master’s degree, all I felt was anxiety and despair — my mind kept going back to those intrusive thoughts. Sitting there, I felt like I was losing my mind, but I tried my hardest to keep it together until we got back to California so I could get help. 

On Oct. 18, the snowball that had built up finally crashed and exploded. We were visiting Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team, and I saw a person washing windows on a tall building. 

Mental Health
This was one of the few photos I could take before freaking out. Courtesy of Jarrod Castillo. 

The first thing to pop into my head was potentially jumping off so the ruminating thoughts would stop. I recall being deathly afraid of even unbuckling my seatbelt and getting out of the car to take a picture with my family because I didn’t know what would happen. 

I pushed myself to take a few pictures before scurrying back to the relative safety of the car. As we continued on our six-hour drive, it all came to a head. I began crying as I told my family that I was having suicidal thoughts and, no matter what I did, the thoughts kept bombarding me. It had gotten so debilitating, I was considering it. 

For the rest of the drive, I lay in the fetal position, my mom clutching onto me for dear life,  hoping that everything would get better soon. Once we got back to California, my parents made a concerted effort to get me help as soon as possible so a diagnosis could be made. 

After speaking with a therapist a few days later, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and depression. My therapist at the time recommended that I distract myself with activities whenever the thoughts came to lessen their impact. 

One of the first activities I turned to was playing video games, along with spending more time exercising. I remember going to a local GameStop to purchase NBA 2K16 as a way to calm down the thoughts running rampant in my head.

Not only that, but after I told one of my friends I was going through this mental change, he took time out of his day just to play Call of Duty: Black Ops III with me. Whenever the thoughts popped back up, we’d hop on Black Ops III and, if he couldn’t, I would play NBA 2K16 instead. 

Mental Health
Surprisingly enough, Black Ops III was one of my lifelines. Courtesy of Treyarch.

Video games became my escape and, in some ways, gave me a new lease on life. 

Had video games not been one of my more effective coping mechanisms, along with therapy, sports and a supportive support system, I don’t know what would have happened to me. Looking back now almost six years later, it’s almost unbelievable to see how much my life has changed. 

I switched my major to journalism (focusing on sports), received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree and now write for a video game news site. From firsthand experience, I know what kind of impact video games can have on someone’s mental health. That’s why I’m such a strong endorser of the positive impacts video games can have on someone’s mental health. 

If video games can positively affect my life,why can’t they positively influence others to do good

Ultimately, my goal with this series is to showcase how video games can positively affect someone’s mental health using my and other people’s stories. By letting people explain how video games have positively affected them, those effects can become more tangible. 

That said, each of the following entries in this series will be structured in a more traditional Q/A format. I greatly appreciate the time each of the interviewees took to speak with me about this topic. They are all wonderful people and I can’t thank them enough for their participation. 

You can read all of them as they come out in the next couple days. Check back here for updates!

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