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Why It’s Important to Recognize ‘Gaming Disorder’ as a Mental Health Condition

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For years, “video game addiction” has been a topic of heated debate. Is it a real mental health condition? Or is it just a first world problem? Some like myself with lived experience say it is real and we should support those who struggle, while others like Chris Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University, claim gaming is no more addictive than eating a slice of pizza.

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) weighed in by including “gaming disorder” in its beta list of mental health conditions for the upcoming 11th International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). Although this news has received attention across the globe, little has been written about why it’s so important for those who struggle with mental illness, and how it’s actually good for all gamers. Here are five reasons:

1. Recognition improves accessibility to professional services.

Access to insurance coverage for mental health is already challenging enough, with Mental Health America reporting that 17 percent (7.5 million) of adults with a mental illness remain uninsured. Further, a national study by Milliman in 2015 found behavioral care was four to six times more likely to be provided out-of-network (out of pocket) than medical or surgical care.

When those with a gaming disorder struggle to maintain employment, it is unrealistic and/or difficult for them to pay out of pocket for therapy services, and families are left with the challenging decision to spend their life savings on $25,000 treatment centers. Although we have a far way to go to secure insurance coverage for those with mental health conditions, recognition of “gaming disorder” by WHO is a positive step in that direction.

2. Recognition improves quality control.

There is currently no standard protocol for therapists and mental health professionals to follow for prevention or treatment of gaming addiction. Although the ICD-11’s recognition includes “only a clinical description and not prevention and treatment options,” quality prevention and treatment begins with an official diagnosis and means of assessment.

3. Recognition reduces stigma.

Stigma — and the fear of being judged, dismissed or misunderstood — prevails to be the number one barrier for students seeking support for mental health challenges, and this stigma is especially prevalent for those with a video game addiction.

Today, a gaming addict is playing roulette when they walk into a therapist office or treatment facility, with reports surfacing from addicts who have been told “gaming addiction is not real,” or even worse, “my psychiatrist laughed at me” when they brought up their challenges around gaming. A significant gap of awareness exists for mental health professionals, and it must be closed immediately.

4. Recognition encourages higher quality scientific research.

Instead of researchers debating about whether video game addiction is real or not, or choosing other topics since it’s “not real,” legitimacy encourages more research into effective prevention models, treatment protocols, comorbidity factors and so forth.

To recognize “gaming disorder” is not to take any legitimacy away from other mental health conditions or illnesses; it only furthers the important message that if you are someone who is struggling, we want you to seek help, and we want you to have the best evidence-based support available.

5. Recognition protects casual gamers (non-addicts).

With official diagnosis criteria, gamers who do not meet it are able to game in peace without the subjective notion of “gaming addiction.” Gamers who do meet the criteria can feel an important level of certainty and clarity that they have a legitimate concern and should seek help.

To recognize “gaming disorder” is not to pathologize video games or gamers in any way. It is simply to acknowledge that if you meet specific criteria — and would like to support — that you are able to receive it. If you do not meet the criteria, game on!

What are we really fighting for?

As a society, we should desire a healthy life for all. To achieve that, we must make it a priority, not only for ourselves but for others. We must be willing to acknowledge that if someone is struggling with their health in any way, they should have evidence-based support available.

For WHO to recognize “gaming disorder” as a legitimate mental health condition is to recognize the individuals who are experiencing challenges around their relationship to gaming. This decision is to encourage them to seek help and to provide professionals with a roadmap to provide effective support. It is to reduce stigma and encourage further (and better) research. And it is to acknowledge that not all gamers are addicts, and gaming can be a healthy activity for many.

This decision is a win for a healthy life for all, an important priority for our society, and I believe that should be celebrated.

For more information, see Cam Adair’s support website and the StopGaming subreddit.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA‘s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

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Photo by John Sting on Unsplash

Originally published: April 2, 2018
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