When you think about it, almost every superhero had to go through some sort of psychological trauma prior to saving the world. Peter Parker lost his parents before his spider web helped to stop corrupted souls of New York, future Captain America was a fragile art student lacking physical robustness to be an enrolled soldier, and finally Superman who has to always hide his true identity.
So, if Batman struggles and eventually overcomes the loss of his family throughout the volumes of comic books, why not use it to help children who also face complex family issues? Dr. Patrick O’Connor started incorporating comic stories in his sessions in 2010. He came up with "geek therapy" after revisiting the relationship between Batman and Robin - and how Bruce Wayne took care of an orphaned Robin, eventually becoming his foster father. He tells Alex Suskind:
I began to wonder what stories would be out there of Batman and Robin comic books that maybe my kids would relate to. Anything about ‘You’re not my real dad,’ or ‘I shouldn’t have to listen to you,’ but then listening to that guidance and maybe starting to buy into that relationship- to try to learn from somebody who’s more experienced but also cares for you and your well-being.
Throughout the time, O’Connor became more interested in incorporating comic stories in therapies with children. He would record things heroes or villains would go through, such as “losing a loved one” or “being different,” that would become relevant for the patients. A collection of his notes is now the basis of Comicspedia, an online database filled with hundreds of individual comic book summaries and their psychological usage. But most importantly, his research paid off in his sessions:
I noticed that, naturally, not only did the kids get excited about it and started looking forward to therapy, it really brought out a lot of stuff that they wanted to talk about, a lot of deep issues. It made the relationship between my clients and myself a lot richer.
Movie journalist, Alex Suskind describes a scene of a young boy sitting in a psychologist’s office and playing with action figures in a sand tray. There’s an epic battle on the horizon. On one side there’s Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman. On the other, there’s an unpredictable fire-breathing dragon, with big eyes and sharp teeth. Because, why not?! In an attempt to annihilate the monster, the superheroes step in and knock the dragon down. Nothing can help the beast, now dangling by a claw from the edge of the sand tray. When the defeat appears to be inevitable, there comes a glimmer of hope: Wonder Woman! She steps in and saves the dragon from his bullies.
For that boy, the dragon is a filter, a way of depicting the impulsivity and loneliness he faces outside the confines of a doctor’s office – analyses Suskind. Wonder Woman represents his mother, the one constant in his life.
However, geek therapy isn’t constrained only to the youngest and finds its usage among adults, too. Psychotherapist and geek psychology endorser Josue Cardona believes that “play” mode is equally appropriate for adults as it is for children:
If you enjoyed something as a kid, can you not also enjoy it as an adult? Some say that play is the language of children but I'm pretty sure that everyone, young and old, can speak that language.
As an example of a story for adults, O'Connor cites X-Man Second Coming. With mutant kind facing an impending doom, it becomes particularly relevant in dealing with issues of leadership, internal conflicts, and interpersonal struggles that adults face in their professional as well as private lives.
Not only do comic books find their usage in overcoming psychological issues, but also other tropes of popular cultural, such as video games. As a new research carried out by Oxford university shows, video games can significantly help with beating dyslexia among school children. Scientists still don't agree on what causes dyslexia, but one theory says it has something to do with delayed reactions when shifting attention from sights to sounds.
To test this, researchers asked 17 people with dyslexia and 19 control participants to press a button as quickly as they could each time they heard a sound, saw a dim flash of patterns on the computer screen or experienced both together. The results showed that the dyslexic group took longer to react when they have to shift their attention between a sound and a flash.
Thus, the researchers concluded that video games, which require quick responses to the action on the screen and shifting to one part of the screen to another, might help to improve fast reaction to stimuli among children with dyslexia.
However, as with many innovative solutions, especially when they involve popular culture, geek therapy still isn’t recognized as an actual form of psychological treatment. Steve Kuniak who is currently working on his doctoral degree in counselor education and supervision, claims that older professionals are reluctant to acknowledge it because they can’t get around the idea of something like a game or a comic being able to help a patient in any official capacity. Nonetheless, Kuniak is hopeful for the future, stating this type of therapy is still in its infancy:
There’s a lot of conjecture literature, a lot of qualitative studies where people are talking about their ideas. But we’re just sort of getting the questions asked at this point. And so our next step is coming up with the quantitative studies to get some data behind it.
Even though an interest for comic therapy is fast spreading among practitioners, American Psychological Association (APA) doesn’t recognize comic book therapy as it’s not an evidence-based treatment. Thus, it’s highly hesitant to finance research projects in the field. It somehow seems like a vicious circle for the institution to require scientific evidence for a treatment’s effectiveness while it’s unwilling to support study in the new area.
Either way, Cardona and O’Connor do not give up, and together - with other licensed psychologists - organized a Comic-Con panel “Geek Therapy: How Superheroes Empower Us All.” They expected only 5-10 people to appear for the lecture during the San Diego convention where hundreds of events are fighting for people's attention. The number of 300 attendants surpassed their highest expectations. After the speakers discussed the ways comic books can help heal, some members of the audience came to thank them for what they were doing.
So, if you’re going through a tough time or simply feel down, why don't ya' pick up a graphic book and immerse yourself in a sci-fi story? Who knows, maybe you will find some hidden super powers inside you!