People with mental illnesses know that there are things we do to help us deal with our demons on a day-to-day basis. These are activities that help us focus, or relieve anxiety, or help stave off the racing, dangerous thoughts. Coping mechanisms have to be healthy and constructive to be worthwhile, though. Drinking, drugs, violence, promiscuity, etc., tend to be destructive while things like writing, painting, and exercise are more productive and can solve multiple problems.
I have several coping mechanisms, most are constructive, some are not. However, I have noticed that D&D, and everything related to it, offers many different outlets that are related, but can involve different skills and ways to express oneself. As a person who seems to not be able to settle on one medium of artistic expression, I think this is one of the big reasons I love the game.
I feel my favorite way of self expression is writing. D&D offers several ways to stretch my writing muscles either in small bursts or in large chunks. At the smallest scale, one of my favorite things is writing character backstories. I’ll design a character just to have something to build a short story around. I’ll research the lore of the campaign setting and mold the character’s story to fit within the world. This helps me practice character building, improves my research skills, and gives me a bit of a puzzle to do. How does this character fit in the world? How would their existence and actions change the world around them? These writing exercises helps me develop skills for bigger writing projects.
If I want a bigger scale writing exercise, I work on designing my own campaign setting. I write the history, lore, and creation story for my world, breathing breath into it and make it feel real and alive. These particular writing sessions tend to be very long, as I tend to hyperfocus on it until my brain is sated.
World building also involves mapmaking, which allows me to scratch that art itch I sometimes get. I love focusing on a map, crafting every coastline until it is perfect, making sure every river flows realistically, and every city is strategically placed. I love coming up with names for places and giving each settlement a unique feel and environment from the others. Using my imagination to picture what each town would look and sound like if I were to walk down the main road is a great way to escape for a while.
If I need a more tactile way to create art, I paint minis. I’ve found painting minis is a very calming, meditative activity for me. I get excited to study a mini, choose a color palette, and carefully painting every nook and cranny. My first attempts were below average, but the more I do it the better I’ve gotten. I’ve begun incorporating more advanced techniques to make the colors pop and the mini look more realistic. Each one takes a few hours, and in that time I don’t think about anything but making the mini look as good as I can. No dark thoughts, no anxiety. Just creativity and a clear mind.
There are other ways that people can use D&D as a coping mechanism. Artists routinely create art of their characters in their games or characters from their favorite RPG show. Writers pen fan fiction to continue their favorite characters’ stories. Builders and sculptors create pieces in their chosen medium inspired by their games, or the lore of the worlds of D&D.
There are so many ways D&D can be used to develop healthy coping mechanisms, but I feel the truly best way to use the game to help with mental issues is to actually play it. Allowing someone to step into the shoes of a fictional character to either escape their own issues or to work through their issues from a different perspective can be greatly beneficial. The benefits are exponentially better if you’re playing with people who support you and want to help you deal with your mental illness. It’s like a support group with swords, magic missiles, and pretty dice.
Developing good coping mechanisms when dealing with mental illness is imperative to living and dealing with the struggles mental illness gives us. D&D is a powerful outlet for developing creative ways to relieve stress, deal with anxiety, and keep the terrible thoughts at bay. I’m sure Gary Gygax didn’t think that his simple fantasy game would become a way for people to deal with mental illnesses, but I’m certainly glad he created it.