How Pokémon Go can help fight mental illness

By Mack Lamoureux, CBC News

‘I can now walk into a crowded place and pick out people playing Pokémon and know I’m not alone’

Billie Milholland calls it a miracle.

For the first time in years, her granddaughter Eden has been regularly leaving the house despite a crippling social anxiety disorder. What got the teenager out of the house?

Well, a Squirtle, a Geodude, a Cubone, and even a Dratini. The game Milholland is speaking about is Pokémon Go, an augmented reality app. Millions of people have become taken with the game, but for her granddaughter it’s a little different.

“It was so emotional, the first couple times I didn’t dare believe it would last,” Milholland said. “I tell you, I was so torn up I wanted to kiss the feet of the people that created this game.”

For the last seven years, Eden has barely been able to leave the house. At times she would have to miss school because of the anxiety she would feel.

“I would feel anxious,” Eden said. “I would feel lost and I wouldn’t feel comfortable. It just felt like no one really liked me and they were looking at me strange. I just felt anxious about everyone around me.”

These days though, the 15-year-old is out exploring her city in the hopes of hatching an egg, finding a pokestop or encountering a Pokémon she’s been tracking. And she’s not alone in her endeavours.

While it wasn’t officially released in Canada until Sunday, there is no denying Pokémon Go has already become a phenomenon in the Great White North and beyond.

The Pokémon company’s recent foray into augmented reality has been downloaded several million times and is the most popular mobile game in United States history. With more than 21 million active users daily, technology outlets are reporting that the app has more daily users than twitter and gets more engagement than Facebook.

While the Pokémon characters imposed upon the backdrop are fake, the impact the game may be having on people who suffer anxiety and depression is very real, proponents say.

‘It breaks up the cycle’

In the week or so since the game first debuted internationally, Milholland said she’s seen a real change in her granddaughter.

“It’s been less than a week, she has a cheerfulness about her that she used to have when she was littler,” she said. “The cheerful kid we used to know in elementary school is showing flashes of that again.

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