May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US. That makes it a great time to check in, both with ourselves and our loved ones. As luck would have it, World Anvil members are already doing something to enhance their mental health, just by participating in the creative hobby of worldbuilding! Creativity, gaming and mental health have a long, complicated history. Let’s take a quick mental health break to chat about the links between creativity and mental illness. And what we can all do to take care of ourselves and each other, while also ensuring that we’re not perpetuating harmful stereotypes in our worldbuilding.

Creativity != Mental Illness

There’s a longstanding perception that a dark connection exists between creativity and mental illness. The “tortured artist” trope is the most obvious example, but hardly the only one. The “mad genius” archetype is another example, and one which is commonly referenced in science fiction, fantasy, and ttRPGs. Not only is this idea not supported by recent research, but perpetuating it can create a situation where people refuse to seek help for mental health struggles, because they believe treatment could diminish their creative talents.

It can be a lot of fun to play (or write) a character who is unpredictable and wild! These characters can add a lot to your story. But it’s also important to remember that terms like “insane,” “crazy,” and “madman (or madwoman)” have been used to demonize real people, in the real world, who struggle with mental illness. The term “hysteria” was historically used to ostracize, or even institutionalize, women who rejected societal norms or resisted family expectations – whether they had any other “symptoms” or not.

When we build fantasy, RPG or D&D characters, be mindful of how we describe those who might be seen as having a mental illness. The last thing we want is to have a reader or player get the impression that their mental health status could make them less worthy of care and respect.

Full disclosure: early in my publishing journey, I wrote a space opera series that referred to the main character as “crazy.” It was a way of processing my own mental health diagnoses, but I wouldn’t use that term if I were writing the books today. For me, it’s a matter of “when you know better, you do better.”

Creative Hobbies Benefit Mental Wellness

On a happier note, you may be giving yourself a mental health boost every time you log into World Anvil! There are a number of studies showing that participating in creative hobbies enhances your mental wellbeing. Creative activity is good practice in problem-solving. This helps you develop a greater sense of personal agency, what counselors refer to as “internal locus of control,” which is important for making positive changes.

When you’re worldbuilding, you have total control over the world you create. It can be a sandbox for imagining a more hopeful future or for building characters who are empowered to spark widespread societal change. While the real world can often feel dark and depressing, spending time in your own fictional world can be like a “mental vacation.” To be clear, worldbuilding isn’t therapy, but it can be a powerful tool for exploring different ways of thinking, imagining the way the world should be, or rejecting harmful ideologies.

Creative hobbies and activities can also be a way of relieving stress, or processing difficult emotions. There’s a reason that art therapy and drama therapy have a long history, and why tabletop RPGs (and D&D specifically) are being used increasingly as tools in formal therapeutic practice.

Creative activities can help expand your brain’s neural connections. This has been linked to the release of dopamine and other feel-good hormones. This includes worldbuilding, writing fiction, cosplay and visual art – all things that are well-represented in the World Anvil community.

Tabletop RPGs Benefit Mental Health

We’ve come a long way from the ’80s, when alarmists worried that games like D&D would cause vulnerable teens to get “lost in a fantasy world.” Raise your hand if you’ve seen the infamous (and infamously bad) movie Mazes and Monsters… 🙄

These days, experts recognize that the social interaction, communication skills, and collaboration practice that tabletop RPGs provide is beneficial to mental health. The opportunity to view the world from a different perspective and practice social skills in a structured environment can be helpful for neurodivergent people, as well.

Organizations like Game to Grow, Take This, and Geek Therapeutics are exploring more specialized applications of gaming to benefit mental health. Additionally, there are events like Jasper’s Game Day that seek to raise funds for suicide prevention and other mental health charities through gaming. There’s also One Last Good Day, a tabletop game where players help a ghost resolve their unfinished business, which donates all proceeds to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

As you can probably tell, this is a subject I’m pretty passionate about. As a creative professional and gamer with mental health diagnoses, I’ve spent a long time untangling the myths and misconceptions about how the things I love to do can impact the conditions I have to manage.

I’d just like to leave you with a couple of thoughts for this month.

  • First, mental health is physical health. If you wouldn’t pause before getting help for a broken leg or diabetes, then don’t let stigma make you hesitate to get care for any mental or emotional struggles you have.
  • Second, you aren’t “broken” if you have a mental health diagnosis – and you don’t need to worry that pursuing treatment will make you less creative or less yourself. My career didn’t really start flourishing until after I started a treatment plan.
  • Lastly, you are loved, you are wanted, and we need your unique light in the world. It may not always feel like it. Don’t believe those feelings. Please just stay. 💕