Ask the Expert: How do video games affect mental health?

Guest blog from Lisa Smuz, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
Finally, a New Year’s resolution you’ll actually have fun keeping: Play with your smartphone more. In fact, doing so might even turn out to be a great way to improve your mental health, combat clinical depression or anxiety, and promote healthy aging.

With the release of a large number of health and wellness apps, including Apple’s® Health in October of this past year, more people are beginning to use their smartphones to help improve their health and wellness. With just a quick search you can find free applications that help you track and make healthier food choices, get more exercise by training for a 5k, and learn to meditate and better manage stress.

We know improving your physical health is helpful to your mental health, but now there are also apps directly targeted at boosting your mental well-being. There are free applications to help you cope with symptoms of PTSD and even the app “Happier®” that helps you learn and practice the behaviors and thinking patterns of happier people.

Eat right, exercise, manage your stress, and learn positive thinking patterns: Those are time-proven, effective strategies for improving your mental health. Having these tools at your fingertips can help make doing these behaviors easier and more fun. Many of the apps can also connect you to other people working on the same goal, giving you much-needed social support and accountability.

But there’s another, more surprising way you can use your smartphone for better mental health: Play more video games.

Yes, you heard that correctly. Play more video games. Not “good for you” or “special healthy” video games. I’m talking about regular, normal, actually fun video games. East Carolina University published a study that suggests that playing games (like the popular smartphone games Bejeweled® or Bookworm®) for 30 minutes per day can help alleviate clinical depression and anxiety. Not just for the day, but a month later at levels that rival the effectiveness of medication.

There’s also evidence that video games aren’t just good for young people, but that continuing to play (or starting a new habit) in older years actually promotes a more positive aging experience, and helps alleviate depression in older adults.

So go ahead, break out that smartphone on the bus ride home from work, or get a phone and download some apps for grandma. No need for it to be a guilty pleasure, you’re just fulfilling your New Year’s resolution to take better care of your mental health.


Lisa is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor with more than 15 years of experience operating large-scale mental health projects and has internationally published works in the area of stigma reduction. Ms. Smusz currently heads her own consulting company and teaches at California State University, East Bay. Previously, Ms. Smusz served as the Executive Director of Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services (PEERS) and has served as a board member for statewide organizations and advisory committees.