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Self Care & SDCC: Post-Con Thoughts

August 1, 2016

It's been one week since SDCC 2016, and my routine is back to normal for the most part. Despite not having attended each day this time around (*cries*), I had something to do each day. Wednesday night, I attended the Game of Bloggers meet-up and met some awesome people. Thursday night I attended the #WaywardCocktails Supernatural meet-up, which is always a blast. I spent Friday creating an entirely new outfit once I discovered none of my cosplays from previous years fit (*cries some more*). I attended on Saturday with my family, and my siblings got distracted trying to catch a Squirtle. Sunday I walked around the Gaslamp, did the Conival thing, and had a great lunch at the Blind Burro.

I spoke with some amazing people who are geeks and mental health advocates. Over the past years, there has been an increased awareness of mental health problems in the community. Not just with superhero psychology and the benefits of geek therapy, but with the idea that we, just like the rest of the population, have certain issues that we are coping with in our lives. Each year there are more panels at SDCC that cover the psychology of one topic or another in geek culture, and that discuss mental health in the community.

The importance of recognizing these inner struggles cannot be overlooked. As a 10-year (maybe 11-year, I forget) attendee to San Diego Comic Con, I am not exaggerating when I say that each year I have come across at least one person who has become overwhelmed with all the stimuli that the event has to offer. There is just so much going on everywhere you look! Speaking for myself, I have frequently used the Anime Rooms as a quiet space. I love anime, but I have also found that I can sit in a quiet space and be away from the chaos for a short while. As an introvert, this gives me a very much needed break from the crowds, which then allows me to return to the exhibit hall or panels with my internal batteries charged, and continue to enjoy the event.

some FNAF stuff
I recently discovered that some gaming conventions have a designated quiet space, or AFK Rooms. These rooms are there for people who need that break, who become overstimulated, or people who need help. I was interested in learning more, so I asked some questions of Dr. Raffael Boccamazzo ("Doctor B"), Clinical Director of Take This (@TakeThisOrg on Twitter), an organization that works toward educating the public about mental health disorders, prevent mental illness, and reduce stigma. Take This was founded by journalists Susan Arendt and Russ Pitts, and psychologist Dr. Mark Kline, based on their experiences and knowledge of the community and the need for mental health awareness, education, and support.

"The first AFK Room was at PAX East in 2014, and we've hosted rooms at every North American PAX since, and PAX Australia since 2015. We've also expanded to other conventions and events like E3, MomoCon, QuakeCon, among others," Dr. B shared. His responsibilities as clinical director include coordinating all clinical volunteers, approving clinically-oriented activities, and ensuring uniform standards of practice.

I was curious as to what these rooms are like, what happens, and who runs them. According to Dr. B, "It's a place where people can come and find quiet respite from the fun, yet often overstimulating, environment at conventions. It's amazing to see the visible relief from people the moment the quiet and serenity hits them." Of course, it isn't only for quiet breaks. "Some people come to the AFK Room in distress, and the mental health clinicians that we have at every shift are there to answer mental health questions and provide brief, caring support for these folks. We also provide mental health referral resources, if necessary, as the AFK Rooms do not provide treatment."

The people who work at the AFK rooms are all volunteers; advanced graduate students, psychology students, and pre-licensed clinicians. Many are gamers, but some are people who want to learn more about gamer culture. There is always at least one licensed clinician present.

I found several other articles on the webs, and some people's personal experiences:

"My PAX Take This AFK Room Experience" 
"AFK Room at PAX Prime - Indigo Mental Health"
"Take This AFK Room -E3 Insider"
"The AFK Room - PC Gamer"

I was touched by reading the personal experiences of people who had visited one of these rooms. As a provider of mental health services, I know how difficult it can be to share such a personal experience. I appreciate that these people would share their stories.

After doing my research, I've come to some conclusions:

1) The people who run AFK Rooms (or wellness rooms) are providing much, MUCH needed services. We're just people, and whether or not we have a diagnosis, any of us can become overstimulated at a convention. As a community that is beginning to recognize the importance of discussing mental health issues, we need to do more to help from within.

2) I need to go to a PAX.

3) Con-goers would benefit greatly from a wellness room at SDCC. Maybe two.

Have you volunteered at or visited an AFK room? I would love to hear your experience.
Did you go to SDCC 2016? I'd love to hear that experience as well :).

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