A community approach and discussion about the more difficult part of mental illness in a community setting and an argument against seeing mental health as something that can only be handled by trained professionals.
This a quite serious post and is set in a larp culture where larp is mostly not just seen as games and entertainment but as art and social commentary. I write this out because I know there can otherwise sometimes be strong reactions if the reader is thinking of larps as “only” entertainment and a somewhat not so serious hobby.
I choose the term psychiatric disability to mark that I mean the more severe end of the spectrum. I’m also going to be mainly discussing chronic or very long term mental illnesses that have a profound effect on the one who suffers from it and might mean having to adapt much of ones life to work with or around the disability.
In my years in different larp communities I can say that I see two main ways of looking at mental illness that sometimes exist in the same community at the same time. I wish to explore the middle ground between these two.
Minimized consequences to actions – harmful inclusion
On one end of the spectrum mental illness can be used as an argument why a community member should be spared some agreed upon consequence to their actions due to having some kind of psychiatric disability. It’s not often even confirmed if the larper even suffers a psychiatric disability. It’s not as much used as an explanation, but as an excuse of not having to subject a person to consequences. It’s not as much about sparing the individual, as it is often difficult having to administer the consequences.
It can be seen as a kind way of treating people who (might) suffer for mental health difficulties when in truth it more often just is the less labor intensive way of handling a situation. However I don’t think anything constructive comes from it and it only puts a problem of until a later date, it can also lead to much worse problems down the line.
This approach leads both to a rumor mills about what larper might have what diagnosis and it leads to cover ups of rather serious incidents in which mental health might have been a factor. This helps no one.
Consequences before there even was an action – exclusion
The other main way at looking at mental illness in a larp community is instead looking at it as a huge problem, which no one who is not a trained professional should ever even touch or talk about. It is seen as unfathomable, extremely dangerous and disruptive. It forces people who have psychiatric disabilities to either be very quiet about their problems, or risk being excluded before there even has been a problem or to be very vocal about them, outing their medical data to most of the community and also having to educate everyone who wonders about that psychiatric diagnosis. They are seen as role models and are forced to be “strong” advocates. The larpers who are in need of extra support are also pressured to design what that support should look like.
In recent years I have seen an increasing acceptance of both Neuro psychiatric diagnosis (Autism, ADHD, ADD) and of less serious mental health issues (minor depression, trauma reactions, burn out, phobias, anxiety). But somehow this hasn’t helped or continued to also encompass more serious issues such as major depression with suicidal ideation, schizophrenia with psychotic episodes, bipolar disorder, and dissociative identity disorder.
Also there is little understanding for mutism, sensory processing disorders, addiction and eating disorders.
Writing this text I hope I can help my community to better mental health and to lessen the stigma while also giving designers and game runners tools that they can use for better outcomes. I bet there are other tools out there and I am not the one and only guru on the subject. Never believe someone who tries to sell you on the one true way when it comes to the social sciences.
Advice for larp designers and game runners dealing with a specific participant.
Realize you already have players and organizers in the community living with severe psychiatric disability. You, the reader, might already know this if they see you as a safe enough person to tell.
I find most of the work is done when going over a larp design for a specific run, when I know more about the practicalities of my venue, my schedule and who I might have on my staff. Be truthful with yourself about what needs this design, venue, schedule and staff can and cannot meet. We always work with limitations.
Set your intent and communicate it on your web page and social media. You can write things like “We strive to make this run accessible to participants with disabilities be they physical, mental, psychiatric, sensory. Please contact us to discuss your situation and we can see if we have anything to offer”. Here you can also mention limitations you already know you are working with, such as stairs at the venue, or sleep deprivation as an integral part of the design.
Don’t focus on being told the diagnosis, as that is medical data, but for participants who contact you to describe what they need and how great that need is. Sometimes it can help to also rank the needs with the participant. Is undisturbed sleep more important than regular meals? Is it more important to be stimulated and feel included throughout the game, or to have alone time?
Make a plan together, but with your as the authority. Describe what you don’t want to happen. Severe panic attack? Persistent disassociation? Verbal outbursts? Participant doesn’t eat/throws up? Write down early warning signs of a worsening mental state, both ones that are noticeable by others, and those only the participant can know about. Make an agreement they will keep a staff member updated about them. At some game it might even be possible to have them bring an assistant person who you can either give a free ticket to, or in some countries the state might cover their participation fee. Write down in the plan what you will do if certain things happen. It can be anything from “you will leave the in game area and go to bed”. “If you can’t do these things we will have to drive you to urgent psychiatric care.” (These plans are also great with diabetics and people with seizures). Knowing what will happen makes everyone more prepared and calm.
Don’t be afraid to use the plan, and do so when needed. Preventing a bad situation will actually build trust in the community. Don’t make enacting the plan a big thing and try to be very matter of fact about it. Strict but warm if you can, otherwise just use a low affective response. “As you have not eaten all day we are calling your wife, as we agreed.” The person might not appreciate it in the moment, but will often speak very well of the intervention some time after.
Participating with restrictions is also a tool. If a participant comes forward to you as an alcoholic, and there is alcohol at your game, the restrictions can be that they can’t drink at the game, and will be removed if found drinking. You can make a deal that a person will stay away from their triggers at you larp, and not use your larp to confront them. Some will have to be restricted from playing character who many others depend on.
General design advice
I myself try to design in a way where I avoid bottle necks and key persons in my relationship networks and the functions different characters have. This not only makes the games less vulnerable to a player having a mental health crisis, but also less vulnerable to over sleepers, people choosing the wrong character, someone twisting an ankle and just general late drop outs. The lessened pressure I find has a positive effect on my players mental state as well. If there is a hierarchy with just one person at the top, I design so others can fill their shoes quickly and use group based leadership where members of a groups can decide a call to action without waiting for the higher ups. I do the same with my staff, since I enjoy working with people who are open about their health issues. All jobs have two people who can do them, even if each job has a primary person who is supposed to do it, someone else is also their under study. Logistics can also be a safety host, chef can also do first aid, first aid can also do workshops etc.
List your risk factors
There are som risky design choices you are welcome to make but know they have inherent risks to bring around mental health crisis in players. Designing with:
Without bed being a safe haven.
Physically exerting your players completely
Food deprivation, unfamiliar food
Exposure to element for longer periods of time (cold, wet)
In game isolation and being expelled from the in game “home” group.
Too much stimulation for an extended time. Loud noice, bright lights, touch, temperature.
Too little stimulation, designing with boredom.
Built in stress and reliance on out of game skills.
Aggressive play, violent play that is hard to opt out of especially if it is “close to home”
Confusing materials on safety and calibration that are hard ro remember and implement.
Providing costumes without being size inclusive.
Very strict gender binary tied to out of game gender.
Pressure to play the character and their relationships as written.
are the ones I’m coming up with right now, but I think readers can come up with more. All of these must be communicated on the web page and other materials about the larp so that people can make informed decisions about if this is a game it’s a good idea for them to attend. Most self aware people are very good at self selecting out, and this is why I’ve had such good experience organizing for participants with severe (diagnosed) mental disability where we had a plan from the beginning.
I recommend it!