Game to Grow fights mental illness with Dungeons & Dragons

Jeremy Milliner


When you’re a kid, it’s hard to save the world. You’ve got grades to keep up, sports teams and school plays to try out for, friends to make, and parents to please. It’s even harder to save the world when you’re a teenager with depression, social anxiety, or Autism. Saving the world is only possible if you can first save yourself, and a company called Game to Grow is helping kids do both.

Dungeons and Dragons party
Rebecca might be shy, but her level 9 paladin can inspire her allies through the darkness.

Founded in 2017, Game to Grow is a non-profit organization that uses tabletop gaming to improve people’s lives – specifically Dungeons & Dragons.

What makes DnD such a good choice right off the bat is that it’s a role-playing game. If you can immerse yourself in a fantasy world and invest in the zany exploits of your character, suddenly you’re not a little boy who had a bad day at school, or a teenager who just had a fight with her parents. Movies, books, and video games are all escapist fun, but tabletop gaming does two things that no other medium can match:

First, the heart and soul of the character is up to you. Dungeons & Dragons goes much deeper than vicariously living through a Marvel hero, or poking and prodding a character creation menu in a video game. There’s no Mass Effect dialogue wheel in DnD; you say whatever you want. There are no invisible walls either; you can go where you want.

Victims of depression often describe themselves as feeling trapped, like their course is set and they have no control over their own lives. Dungeons and Dragons puts you in the shoes of an altogether different character, charting an altogether different path. With that agency comes a rare liberation – what you do matters, and more importantly who you are matters!

Dungeons and Dragons
Take a stand against mental illness

Second, and just as important, is that with tabletop gaming you’re with a group. You’re sharing space, making conversation, and working together to complete an objective. It’s a hands-on experience that gently nudges players towards a collaborative effort and achieving something that they could not do alone.

A DM (who serves as the game’s moderator) sets the stage and it’s up to you how you want your character to tackle the obstacles. These obstacles could be clearing a dungeon or slaying a monster, but could just as easily be negotiating with townspeople, attending a costume ball, or interfering with kingdom politics. Maybe you’re afraid to embark on such a daunting task … but your character isn’t!

The mission

No matter what the quest of the week happens to be, Game to Grow has a bigger mission they’re weaving into the plot: Targeting your own personal issues, and empowering you to conquer them.

“Part of what we do is we say you are yourself and that is OK,” says company founder Adam Davis. “You can participate and we can celebrate your uniqueness and your unique skill set.” He and co-founder Adam Johns have been using this formula for over eight years. Today they see over 50 kids a week, many of whom are on the Autism spectrum, and the result is a system that’s just as – if not more – effective than official therapy or psychiatry.

Adam Johns considers the company “agnostic to diagnosis,” explaining that “even when kids report that they’re doing fine, a lot of times that’s because they’ve never had an opportunity to know what it is to have a friend and know what it is to feel connected. When they come to our groups they build that connectedness, they build that opportunity for relationship with other kids.”

Game to Grow Adam Davis Adam Johns
The Game to Grow founders have been teaching kids to fight the good fight for almost a decade

Game to Grow has since expanded the company, training teachers, librarians, community leaders, and even therapists in their methodology.

“We know we’re never gonna run groups across the world,” admits Adam Johns. “Instead, we’d rather train other people to get their own group started.” Kids or parents who fear the social stigma of therapy are more willing to say “I’m going to DnD tonight” over “I’m seeing my therapist.” As such, Game to Grow has a 94% retention rate, and kids are excited to come back for the next adventure.

“We see kids that are burned out on therapy,” says Johns, “but they come to our group, week after week. It’s the one thing they don’t want to miss.”

Dungeons and Dragons tabletop gaming
Friends who slay dragons together stay together

It’s awesome to see tabletop gaming being used as a medium to help people overcome their anxiety, and we hope to see that same creative initiative catch on and become more mainstream in today’s society, one dungeon at a time!

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