As part of an ongoing series with AnyKey, I had the opportunity to speak with Jason Docton from Anxiety Gaming. Anxiety Gaming is an American non-profit that works with gamers and professional esports organizations, and offers free mental health support to those who need it within the gaming community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where did the idea for forming Anxiety Gaming stem from?
The idea of Anxiety Gaming came from one of the most difficult times in my life. What began as a panic attack resulted in my withdrawal from medical school, the eventual loss of my fiance, and an endless spiral of severe mental health issues. For five years I remained at home and alone, trying to get through each day by playing World of Warcraft. I had decided that there was no hope to get better, and the only option was to take what I felt was the only agency I had over my life anymore: I’d commit suicide.
Depression is such a curious affliction, because you lose every bit of hope for yourself, but find yourself so able to feel hope for others. I knew in my heart that I needed to save someone from committing suicide because I could go through with that very act. So began Anxiety Gaming, or at the time, Anxiety Gamers. Anxiety Gamers was the name I chose on Justin.tv, where my mission was dedicated to trying to talk to my fellow gamers about how serious mental health issues can be. The first person that reached out became the entire focus of my life. My day became entirely dedicated to talking with them, researching ways to help them, and improving myself so that I could provide better support. We came to the wonderful conclusion that if life was worth dying for, it was certainly worth living for. As great as this was for both of us, success was bittersweet. My purpose was served and it was time to go through with my original plan.
On that final day I decided to check my messages one last time. To my surprise, I had gotten one message to my Anxiety Gamers account. A friend of the previous person I had helped heard that I was great to talk to, and could possibly help them through a difficult time in their life. I then logged into my World of Warcraft account, which I had not logged into since my time became consumed by researching how to be of help, and found dozens of in-game mail thanking me for my efforts and asking to talk. All of this time I had been planning how to take my own life, but on that same fateful day I had come to the conclusion that I must instead dedicate my life to make sure no one ever takes theirs.
What type of services do you offer for the gaming community, and how can they access these services?
At this moment, Anxiety Gaming provides access to mental health services for gamers all over the globe. The services range from helping people find therapists local to them (we’ve found therapists in every state, and over 30 countries). This therapist finding service is entirely personalized to those going through it. Our process allows us to get to know you better, better understand how you address issues and approach life problems, and then use that information to find a therapist with a complimenting personality. There’s a lot that goes into finding the right therapist. We handle all of that for you.
We’re most well-known for our grant program. For those seeking therapy but find themselves unable to afford the tremendous cost of seeing a therapist, we offer to completely cover the cost for you. We also offer low-cost care for as little as $30 a session, but anyone who can’t afford it will have their sessions paid for.
At the end of the day, Anxiety Gaming’s services are dynamic. When you send in a care application our team becomes dedicated to making sure you get better, taking any measure necessary to do so.
Why do you believe it’s important to address mental health within the gaming community?
Mental health issues are worth talking about in general, attached or unattached to gaming. One of the most powerful moments for me was realizing simply how many people were using gaming as a way to make each day bearable. Anxiety Gaming has helped over 26,000 gamers find relief from their mental health issues. We focus on gaming because we are gamers. It’s important to us on a personal level, and this sense of community is one that we live and breathe. Each of our staff members know what it’s like to have only gaming to hold on to. While many outside gaming will see our focus as niche, we see it as the only home we’ve ever known.
I understand that Anxiety Gaming also does consultations for large organizations and professional teams and players. How does this differ from services you offer the community at large?
Anxiety Gaming has recently started consulting with some of the top esports organizations, many of the largest mental health initiatives, publishers, and school systems. We’ve spent nearly 10 years working within the gaming community, have seen hundreds of thousands of people, and treated tens of thousands. Most gamers have heard of us through specific work with esports organizations, which is fairly dynamic. We’ve helped consult on how to build an organization that tailors to players, which has included everything from welcome packages to housing situations, practice routines and lifestyle balances. Some of the greatest professional players in League of Legends, Overwatch, Counterstrike, Call of Duty, and Smash Brothers have anonymously gone through our systems. Mental health issues are a serious problem within professional gaming.
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Have you found that mental health has always been a priority within the gaming/esports community? Or has it become a more recent priority?
Mental health issues have only recently become something of concern within the gaming and esports industry. We’re beginning to truly appreciate those around us and rally around those being marginalized. Now gaming is in a position where it’s not only common, but incredibly inclusive. Our generation, and the many generations ahead, have the unique opportunity to breathe equality into the future, and with that has come an acknowledgement of how we feel, and a continued openness about what we’re thinking. We’re becoming vocal about depression, about anxiety, and about the reality that life comes with problems that aren’t tangible.
Within esports, mental health is rapidly becoming a priority. What’s not being addressed by most organizations is the reality that depression and anxiety disorders cripple many of the players in the league. We’ve helped with everything from preexisting issues with anxiety and depression to the constant burnout, with lots of crisis management for when the online attacks and harassment become too much, and frequently, the existential crisis of realizing you will retire in your early twenties after having dropped out of school.
What sort of outreach does Anxiety Gaming do, and why do you believe it is important to reach out to organizations, teams, and players?
Anxiety Gaming doesn’t invest too much into outreach efforts. This is something we’ve internally been mixed about, but we generally feel most comfortable continuing to use all of our funding to cover the cost of mental health care for gamers in need. Creating a universal mental health care system leaves little time or funding for us to extend further at the moment. On a given week, we can have anywhere between 20 and 150 applications come through, almost all of which come as referrals from others who have used our services. We’re eternally grateful for all of those who take the time to refer others to our services.
Similarly, our work within esports is due to referrals between players, managers, and team owners. My hope is that our referrals will continue to keep us at max capacity for care, broadcasters continue to promote us to their viewers, teams continue to recommend our success with players to other teams, and incredible publications highlight our efforts. For now, we’re one of the community’s best kept secrets.
What types of success has Anxiety Gaming seen, or helped create?
While at Anxiety Gaming, I’ve had the honor and pleasure of seeing tens of thousands of people find hope, happiness, and freedom from issues they felt would forever afflict them. These moments are what we measure as success to validate our services. Some of us with depression may find ourselves slugging through each day, putting on our same mask and hiding our misery, while others find ourselves unable to get out of bed anymore. There’s a level of courage that doesn’t feel courageous when you begin, but from the outside perspective certainly is a courageous thing. Having faith in yourself when nothing feels right is a beautiful thing that we help cultivate.
I’m proud of our previous event with Trick2G, Dyrus, NightBlue3, Sirchez, Faze Jev, and the band Imagine Dragons, put on by Cher and Team2G. I’m proud of the event we created with Ryan Morrison, Avantika Tiwari, Steph Loehr, Melissa Mok, and Devin Nash who bravely and passionately publicly discussed mental health issues, sexism, and social reform within the gaming community at PAX West. I’m proud of our board members Kevin Wallace and John Spiher who have helped us grow within the industry and afforded us so much of the success people see on a corporate level. I’m proud of our staff, who all deserve to be named but often prefer not to be, who have helped to create every measure of success that we see.
How do you see Anxiety Gaming growing in the future?
Anxiety Gaming will continue to expand into addressing all of the major problems faced by those struggling with mental health issues. I’m confident that Anxiety Gaming will receive the funding and support needed to make mental health care free and accessible to all those in need, while also opening up more physical locations for gamers to seek shelter in during the darkest times in their life. While it’s not a goal I often publicly discus, my intention for Anxiety Gaming is to become the St. Jude’s of mental health care, and it’s one that we’re rapidly approaching.
Previous articles in our series with AnyKey are: AnyKey’s Unique Approach to Tackling Gaming Toxicity, and our interview with DeafGamersTV.