After graduating from Harvard Medical School, Dr. Alok Kanojia, better known simply as Dr. K, started down a unique career path. He’s an addiction medicine specialist who has taken an interest in an area not commonly covered by his field: gaming addiction.
A self-described “reformed gamer” himself, Dr. K runs HealthyGamer.gg with his wife, Kruti, using the internet to broadcast positive messages about mental health to a community entrenched in many of the stigmas that make it difficult to ask for help when it’s needed.
In this piece, we’ll examine the complex relationship between video gaming and mental health and how one man is seeking to leverage some of the biggest video game streamers’ followings to broadcast positive messages about asking for help.
The Story of Byron Bernstein, “Reckful”
In early July 2020, the death of a popular and foundational streamer shocked the video game community. Byron Bernstein, known as Reckful in the gaming community, had died of an apparent suicide.
Bernstein had previously spoken openly about the depression he faced throughout his life — even once in a conversation directly with Dr. K — so the sudden nature of his death had an especially broad impact on the entire gaming community. The streaming platform Twitch made a statement about Bernstein’s passing: “He was a streaming pioneer and helped propel the whole industry forward … We have to recognize that the stigma around mental health and treatment often prevents people from seeking and getting the help they need.” 
Cases like this underline the fact that no matter how successful or popular a person is, there are times when they need professional help to deal with mental health issues. That’s where Dr. K is lending his expertise.
Dr. K Helps Streamers Open up About Their Mental Health
In Dr. Kanojia’s YouTube and Twitch content, he talks to some of the biggest gamers and gaming content creators on the internet about their own experiences with mental health issues. As it turns out, many of the people he talks to have personally dealt with depression, anxiety and a wide range of mental health struggles.
The importance of these public conversations with seemingly larger-than-life individuals can’t be understated. These are people with massive followings — typically made up of an impressionable audience of children and teenagers — who have a chance to expose this group of fans to an issue that’s still heavily stigmatized in the United States.
Are Gamers More Likely To Struggle With Mental Health Issues?
As a more recent phenomenon, the links between gaming and mental health are not well understood, but it does seem reasonable that gamers may be at an increased risk for developing mental health disorders. There are three core issues at the heart of this trend:
Issue 1: Video game addiction is a growing concern
On Dr. K’s website, you can find a breakdown of some key video gaming addiction statistics. What he found is that, especially in developed countries across Europe, North America and Asia, gaming addiction affects between 0.3% and 1% of the population.  This shows that gaming addiction is prevalent enough that it should be given more attention. Additionally, these percentages are likely to rise as access to gaming and technology continue to advance.
Issue 2: Compulsive gaming often begins as an escape
Many well-known gamers have talked at length about how gaming provided an escape from negative situations in their lives, such as social isolation, abusive relationships and other childhood traumas. This suggests that gaming is an outlet used by those who may already be at high risk for complications with their mental health.
As a result of this gradual movement to a more open discussion about mental health, streamers have pulled back the curtain on what gaming meant for them during difficult childhoods and are using their experiences to help the next generation of gamers. One is SheSnaps, a popular streamer who started to share a more personal side of herself after she realized the stakes of mental health in her community following a tragic shooting during a Madden NFL tournament in 2018.
Issue 3: Binge gaming can be accompanied by other health issues
Dr. K has publicized some of the direct negative effects of so-called “binge gaming,” but there are other, indirect consequences associated with spending hours on end playing video games.
For example, video game addiction or compulsion may affect a person’s sleep schedule. As we discussed in one of our blogs, inconsistent sleep and a lack of routine may increase a person’s risk of mental health disorders by disrupting their internal rhythms, especially in teens and younger adults.
In addition, spending more time playing video games means spending less time outside, putting gamers at increased risk of complications that usually accompany a sedentary lifestyle, including type II diabetes and heart disease.
A Growing Movement for Healthier Gaming Habits
An impact that Dr. K wants to make outside of his popular interviews with other creators on multiple platforms is to expand resources to help gamers balance their love of video games with living a healthy lifestyle. On his website, Dr. K offers worksheets to help parents better understand the gamers in their lives, as well as resources for gamers, including an online support group and a video gaming disorder test.
He also trains what he calls “gaming coaches,” whom he pays $20 per hour to give gamers advice on how to cut out unhealthy habits and balance the addictive nature of gaming with a functional lifestyle. According to CNN Business, Dr. K has a goal of training 60 such coaches by the end of 2020 and offers incentives for coaches who continue to work for him over time. Healthy Gamer coaching sessions cost $40-$50 for an individual and $24-$30 for guided group sessions. 
When Is It Time to Ask for Help?
For Reckful and other streamers whose lives have been defined by their battles with mental health, becoming empowered to ask for help and finding mental health resources may have prevented their worsening depression and anxiety. At FHE Rehab, we commend Dr. K for his work in spreading awareness about the links between mental health and gaming and removing the stigma, and we want to make sure people know we’re here as a resource as well.
If you or a loved one are struggling, don’t wait to ask for help. Give us a call and learn about the options we offer. https://globalnews.ca/news/7134883/byron-reckful-bernstein-death-warcraft/#:~:text=Byron%20(Reckful)%20Bernstein%2C%20a,that%20he%20died%20by%20suicide.  https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.16020224  https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/05/tech/dr-k-healthy-gamer-gg-twitch-wellness/index.html