Hanna Russell can have a hard time finding the courage to speak her mind. Her mother, Paja, said Hanna began attending therapy in part to address the effects of years of bullying.
“They all told me to shut up,” the 11-year-old said. “That happened a lot.”
But in her seat at the table during one of Richard Stubbs’ group therapy sessions, Hanna usually can find her voice. There’s nothing like your teammate threatening to behead the troll whose help you need to advance to get you to speak up.
Stubbs, a licensed therapist, said that is just the kind of outcome he seeks by way of his tabletop game therapy sessions. The groups are designed to use aspects of role-playing games to challenge anxiety, oppositional defiant disorders and other struggles that kids bring from their own lives into the room.
“This is just using existing theories to try and address it in new ways,” Stubbs said. “I’m always looking for ways to make things experientially based ... who wants to just talk about skills when you can work on them?”
When a kid’s lessons in empathy-building or mental flexibility come to him as a wizard guiding his team through an abandoned castle, for example, Stubbs finds that he can understand and absorb more effectively than he would in individual therapy or other group situations.
One reason is that the game allows for kids to consider their decisions through the lenses of their characters instead of their own.
“You can stay in the context of the game and address the problems via those characters,” Stubbs said.
He bases the games, which he moderates, on concepts from fantasy role-playing wargame Dungeons and Dragons. Its scores of offshoot products, including video games and television series, have added ever-increasing complexity to its worlds, which is why Stubbs and other therapists who use its concepts have to balance between prioritizing plotlines and therapeutic strategy.
In many ways, though, the framework is the same. Stubbs takes on the role of what’s called the “Dungeon Master” in Dungeons and Dragons; he is responsible for narrating the plot and the outcomes of various characters’ decisions.
The players’ characters are defined by their abilities in different areas: strength, intelligence and charisma are a few examples.
When characters attempt some task, such as scaling a wall or talking their way out of a dungeon cell, whether they succeed is determined by the difficulty of the task, individual skill levels and the roll of many-sided dice. Stubbs takes all those factors and weaves them into a story as they play.
Hanna said she likes the role-playing games, which she had played before the therapy group, because “anything can happen.”
Most of the documentation on the effectiveness of this approach to group therapy remains anecdotal, Stubbs said. He keeps track of his patients’ progress and different strategies in the hopes of developing a manual of sorts so that others who work with kids can try the approach. He has discussed partnering with the YMCA or Child Advocacy Center to expand access. Many mental health professionals have said Jackson County has fewer therapists than are needed.
Hanna said she thinks the group activity can be helpful for many who are involved in or pursuing therapy.
“I recommend it to everyone,” she said. “If you have struggles, if you have issues, do it. It’s fun.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.