The mental health benefits of playing Dungeons and Dragons

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You are what you eat. On the Yorkshire Moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food. Devon is part of the Family, an old and reclusive clan of these bookworms. Her brothers grew up feasting on tales of bravery and adventure, and Devon—like other book-eating women—was raised on a carefully selected diet of fairy tales and cautionary tales. But real life doesn’t like fairy tales, as she learns when her son is born with a rare and darker kind of hunger—not for books, but for human minds.

I’ve been a Dungeon Master for about three years now. I play Dungeons and Dragons with teenagers twice a week at the high school library I run, and I also play it with adults almost every week. I have found the game extremely helpful in fighting the demons that can come to attack our daily news feed or just life in general. I feel there are several benefits to mental health and well-being from playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I’m not alone. I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to many other librarians and even mental health experts about this topic, and what I’ve found is that even though it looks like it’s just a game, what’s really going on is that every time you play, you are engaging in therapy if you deliver the game correctly. If you are considering starting Dungeons and Dragons in your school or public library, this information can be helpful in convincing the leadership or senior management why starting a game like D&D is worthwhile because it has so many benefits not only for the students but also for the adult , which executes the program.

Increases confidence

I’ve seen teenagers who are usually shy and reserved come out of their shell in a Dungeons and Dragons session. This is because they know with absolute certainty that they are in a safe place and that they can express themselves without judgment. It’s also because they live their lives, if only for a lunch hour, in someone or something else’s shoes. Teens who don’t feel like they fit in or have trouble making social connections don’t have to go through this initial first stage of “fitting in” because D&D is the door to fitting in and it’s already open for them. There is an unspoken bond between our D&D students who know that the table we play this game on is safe and anyone can be who they want and do what they want as long as it doesn’t harm others. Do this repeatedly and what you will find is a huge boost in confidence.

Photo courtesy of Lucas Maxwell

This is planned entertainment

In a world where we are bombarded daily with garbage, misinformation, terror and anxiety-inducing fear, planned entertainment is more important than ever. After the pandemic restrictions, we see teenagers in the library with mental problems. I’m not saying that Dungeons & Dragons is some magical cure, what I’m saying is that setting aside time on your calendar to say “I’m going to have fun for this hour at lunch a few times a week” is incredibly powerful. D&D, when delivered right, is a cathartic experience. Teenagers can, if they want, live out their anxieties and fears through the experiences of their characters. Plus, there are no real consequences for failure. In fact, failure, with a good Dungeon Master, can be something that you as a player remember for a very long time, because maybe it was fun, or maybe it caused the party to go down a path that no one, not even the DM, expected . The importance of planned fun and D&D is discussed in more detail in my interview with drama therapist Katie Lear.

Memories

That’s the most important thing for me. I hated high school. What I do in my current library is create a space that my teenager would enjoy being in. After all, many young adults look back on their high school experience as pretty crappy. I want these kids to look back and know that someone cared, someone cared, someone wanted them to have fun and develop friendships and let them be whatever the hell they wanted to be. And they could play a really cool game while doing it. I will miss these students, the ones who have religiously come to play D&D over the past three years, because through this game and our interactions, I have been greatly helped as well. Plus, I have great memories, and that’s what I strive for not only with D&D, but with every program and event I run at the library.

My advice if you are considering starting a D&D program in your library is to start small. Have six players to start with. Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel. Let the players help you create the world if you don’t have time. Buy the starter kit which is really cheap and has a pre-made adventure in it. Don’t worry if you don’t remember the little things, when things go bananas, it will create a moment that teenagers will remember.


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