The Mental Health Benefits of Playing Dungeons & Dragons

Tor Books (@TorBooks)

You are what you eat. In the Yorkshire Moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food. Devon is part of The Family, an ancient and reclusive clan of these book eaters. Her brothers grow up feasting on tales of bravery and adventure, and Devon, like other book-eating women, is brought up on a carefully curated diet of fairy tales and warnings. But real life doesn’t like fairy tales, as she learns when her son is born with a rare, darker hunger, not for books, but for human minds.

I’ve been a dungeon master for about three years. I run Dungeons and Dragons with teenagers twice a week at the high school library I manage and also run it with adults almost weekly. I’ve found the game extremely useful in battling the demons that can accompany the onslaught of our daily news feed or just life in general. I think there are several mental health and wellness benefits to playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I’m not alone. I’ve had the chance to speak to many other librarians and even mental health experts about this topic and what I’ve found is that even though at first glance it seems like it’s just a game, what really happens is that every time you play, you are engaging in therapy if you deliver the game correctly. If you are planning to run Dungeons and Dragons in your school or public library, this information could be useful in convincing management or upper management of the value of launching a game like D&D, as it has many advantages, not only for the students, but for the adult running the program.

Increases confidence

I’ve seen normally shy and reserved teenagers come out of their shells during a Dungeons and Dragons session. This is because they know with absolute certainty that they are in a safe place and can express themselves without judgement. It’s also because they live their lives, even for an hour at lunchtime, in place of someone or something else. Teens who don’t feel comfortable or have trouble making social connections don’t have to endure that initial first stage of “integration” because D&D is the doorway to integration 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 everyone can be whoever they want and do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t harm others. Do this repeatedly and you’ll find that you’ll get a huge boost in confidence.

Photo courtesy of Lucas Maxwell

It’s meant to be fun

In a world where we are bombarded daily with garbage, misinformation, terror and anxiety-inducing dread, having fun is more important than ever. After the pandemic restrictions, we see teenagers in the library with mental health issues. I’m not saying Dungeons & Dragons is some kind of magic cure, what I’m saying is that putting time aside in your schedule to say “I’m going to have fun during this hour at lunch a few times a week” is incredibly powerful. D&D, when delivered correctly, is a cathartic experience. Teenagers can, if they wish, experience their anxieties and fears through the experiences of their characters. Also, there are no real consequences for failure. In fact, failure, with a good Dungeon Master, can be something you’ll remember as a player for a very long time because maybe it was hilarious, or maybe it led to the band borrowing a path no one, even the DM, expected. The importance of programmed pleasure and D&D is discussed in more detail in my interview with drama therapist Katie Lear.

Memories

This is the most important for me. I hated high school. What I do in my current job as a library is create a space that the teenage me would have liked to be in. When it comes down to it, a lot of young adults consider their high school experience to be pretty shitty. I want these kids to look back and realize that someone out there didn’t care, someone cared, someone wanted them to have fun and develop friendships and let them be who they were. wanted to be. And they could play a really cool game while they did it. I will miss these students, those who have come to play D&D religiously for the past three years, because through this game and our interactions, I have also been greatly helped. I also have great memories, and that’s what I seek not just with D&D, but with every program and event I host at the library.

My advice if you’re considering starting a D&D program in your library is to start small. Have six players to start. Don’t think 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 contains a pre-made adventure. Don’t worry if you can’t remember the little things, it’s when things go wrong that will create a moment teens will remember.


About Johanna Gooding

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