Mental Health and Nerd Culture
Scientific studies have shown what those of us embedded deep without any of the various subcultures long knew but rarely spoke about. Nerd culture attracts those of us with mental illness. Specifically, those in nerd culture core higher than average for neuroticism and depression. See, for example, the 2015 McCain et. al. study titled A Psychological Exploration for Engagement in Geek Culture. And this isn’t the only such study. Several studies online deal with the links between depression and video games or mental health and nerd culture in general. Last year Project UROK was at New York Comic Con discussing mental health, showcasing real stories of people with issues surrounding nerd culture. Oh, and some issues such as anxiety are also apparently tied to intelligence (see the 2012 study from Ein-Dor and Tal at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel). And we know that many intelligent people are drawn to sci-fi and fantasy, perhaps stemming from or leading to careers in the sciences and arts.
Why? Why are those of us with issues such as depression and anxiety – my own very real problems – drawn to those parts of pop culture that have long been considered on the fringes of society? And what do we do now that those places of peaceful respite become mainstream?
I can’t put my finger on the exact moment I knew I had mental health issues. My first bought with truly unshakeable suicidal behavior wasn’t until grad school in my mid-20’s, but I clearly had issues as a child. I was the classic geek: fat, awkward, few friends, smart in science, and no interest from girls. Even as a kid I had problems with internal anger and loneliness. Starting around 16 I developed a social life that helped to cover up the festering mental problems below the surface. But by the time I was unemployed and out of college I was crashing back down to a place I never really left, dealing with severe depression and anxiety. I was in and out of the ER for suicide attempts. I was on and off of different medications. I was in and out of therapy. Yet, through it all, I never stopped reading comic books, playing video games, or collecting toys. The world of the geek has always been a solid footing to place myself on in the darkest moments.
So what’s the connection? Why do so many of us with these problems turn to nerdy pursuits?
I think there are a few factors at work. First, many of us have been marginalized somehow in our lives. Maybe we had no friends because we were a fat, awkward poor kid like I was. Perhaps some of us were struggling with issues of sexuality or gender identity. Maybe some of us were the minority in an area where we did not fit in with the majority. Or we were in the military and now have PTSD that other folks just can’t seem to understand. When you are marginalized somehow, there’s a good chance you will experience being ostracized. When you are a kid, this means you get bullied unmercifully. I can recall plenty of times I got into fights. I would be treated like shit because I was a fat boy with breasts. I had other kids throw things at me from a bus. One time I even had someone knock books out of my hand.
When people start off as an “other” by being somehow different from the expected norm and are then verbally or physically forced away from that norm, I suspect they will do what I do. You find those things you can take comfort in, enjoy, or are good at. You shut out the negativity of certain parts of the world. And you end up becoming more and more immersed in nerd culture.
Nerd culture is basically the world of fantasy. Through reading or video games or cosplay or cartoons you can escape or become something else. I can enter Middle Earth or Gotham or the Mushroom Kingdom. When you are a kid this helps to hide from problems and entertain. As you grow older, this becomes part of what helps you relax. If you become part of con culture, this may be how you meet people and socialize. At least for me, though, it started as an escape from the problems of being the “other” as a kid... Even though I didn’t know it at the time. This was definitely true when I was a teenager. Other kids played sports or listened to music. I was deep in Tick comics and Fire Pro Wrestling.
As you fall into nerd culture – comic books, cosplay, anime, sci-fi, etc. – you end up eventually finding like-minded people to be your friend. Some of my friends read comics. Most of my friends and I were majorly big into video games and were all really good students. Almost all of my friends from childhood went to college for the sciences or history. Almost none of us played sports. You end up in an echo chamber with people with similar interests. They act as both your support network and your gateway drug deeper into nerd culture. My first cosplay was because my friends and I decided to go to Wizard World Comic Con in Chicago. I started watching anime because a friend gave me a copied VHS of some old Gundam episodes.
By the time you are an adult, going to conventions and buying a $200 Silver Age comic book, your lifestyle is nerd culture. Most of my friends share at least one of my serious geek interests – comic books, films, video games, cosplay – and most of them share several. And a lot of those people who remain deeply into nerd culture are also those who got into it for the same reason you did: people wrongly told them there was something wrong with them so they found a better place to fit in. As a result, we end up with a section of the larger society that has a disproportionate number of people with mental illnesses or other issues they may need help dealing with, whether it’s anxiety, autism, or gender identity disorder. A lot of us who have or had similar problems throughout are lives can be more welcoming than other sections of society. We can also act as a sounding board for those problems.
Thus, nerd culture is also mental health issue culture. I’m actually glad. As nerd culture becomes more mainstream, maybe mental health issues will too. I make it a point to speak out about my own struggles so that others will hopefully know they aren’t alone. I’ve somehow managed to become a reasonably successful, healthy and active adult. Sometimes I look back at myself and can’t believe how far I’ve come in 33 years. I was a shy, introverted kid that had issues with food and communication with people. Sometimes I am surprised how far I’ve even come in the last few years. My last suicide attempt happened the same year the first Captain American movie came out. Now it’s the summer of the third Captain America movie and I am doing really well. I’m not cured – I don’t expect to ever be without my anxiety and depression – but I am doing great. I owe a large part of that to my friends and family. Many of those friends I know because I am a nerd.
Sometimes that anger and isolation creeps back in and I want to scream at Hollywood for taking my thing, my comic books, and letting everyone else have them. Comic books were also the thing I could relate to and be a part of and be… special because of. Now the rest of the world gets to see everyone on screen. Hell, even Batroc the Leaper is now part of pop culture. My Batroc the Leaper. I know a lot of us feeling this way. We spout out the No True Scotsman Fallacy at every turn, declaring someone not a “real” geek because they only watch the movies. Someone isn’t a “real” fan because they didn’t read the Game of Thrones books. They can’t be part of our world because they weren’t last week or last year or 30 years ago like I was.
Stop it. That makes us as bad as the bullies who picked on us, right? The thing about nerd culture and those of us who became a part of it because of or aside from our mental illness is that we did so because it was a calming, friendly world away from the normal people on society who didn’t understand us or who hurt us. We should be welcoming to those people who want to just go to a con and have fun, or someone who only likes Batman movies, or even people who might pick up a copy of Little Nemo the Dream Master on NES because they loved it as a kid. It doesn’t matter if they are a true nerd or not. Maybe that person has some of the same problems you did when you became a nerd. Maybe you can help them out. Why not give those people who are “just posers” a shot?
So here we all are, broken and imperfect nerds with own problems all condensed into one wildly divergent little area of collectors and cosplayers and gamers. Awesome. I love it. But we all now know that there may be a very real truth about having a higher prevalence of mental health issues or other personal problems without our subset of society. Let’s start a talk. Let’s get together and help each other. Let’s use those resources. Let people know that you have autism and can understand what it’s like to have a son that does. Let people know that you struggled with your own homosexuality and can help them deal with their own sexuality issues. Let people know that you were a cutter or attempted suicide. Let’s all open a dialog without our little weird group with all its strangeness and memetic differences.
I think it’s a great way we can all connect with each other and our nerdiness as the “others” who grew up and became the “sames” in our own world. Oh, and look. Science is now saying all our geeky endeavors may be good for us. Researchers from the University of Michigan found that video games may help ease anxiety (see Moser et. al. 2015 study Manipulating attention to non-emotional distractors influences state anxiety: A proof of concept study in low- and high-anxious college students). And other researchers are finding that video games may help fight depression. It looks like the nerd culture we all joined because we needed to be a part of something might really be helping us out.
Now if we can finally get a video game to teach us how to talk out our problems with other people instead of constantly overreacting. Hmm. I could make that. It’ll be like boring, realistic Mega Man. He and Proto Man decided to go to therapy instead of battling each other! Actually, that doesn’t sound fun at all. Let’s keep video games unrealistic.