Gaming addiction a mental illness: WHO


Sumitra Debroy    19 June 2018

MUMBAI: Addiction to video games is officially a mental health condition now. World Health Organisation (WHO) has listed gaming disorder as a mental illness, putting it parallel to alcohol and drug abuse, in the revised International Classification of Diseases (ICD) released on Monday.

It defined gaming disorder as a pattern of persistent gaming behaviour where an individual has impaired control over the onset, frequency or duration of play.

However, not every gamer is an addict. The obsessive pattern should be evident through a period of 12 months during which the individuals personal, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning is severely affected because of the activity.

"When gaming interferes with eating, sleeping, work and other functions, it becomes a disease," said, Dr Shekhar Saxena, director, department for mental health and substance abuse, WHO, told TOI.

WHO experts said the recognition of gaming as a harmful behaviour was based on evidence collected over a decade from countries world over. "There is evidence to show it causes disability and can have serious public health repercussions. Its inclusion in the ICD would pave way for doctors to diagnose and treat it better, while governments can use it to develop public health strategies to tackle it," Dr Shekhar Saxena, director, department for mental health and substance abuse, WHO, told TOI. "But its crucial to remember that it affects only a small percentage of gamers," he added.

Experts say WHOs inclusion may come as a boon for addicts in India that has only three prominent clinics to treat the condition currently. Of this, the two big clinics at Nimhans in Bengaluru and AIIMS in New Delhi cater to nearly 30 cases a month and are witnessing a growing demand. "There were hardly any patients when we started the first clinic in 2014 but now the numbers are rising with growing awareness," said Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, coordinator of Service for Healthy Use of Technology (SHUT) clinic at Nimhans. Welcoming WHOs decision, he said it would bring more acceptance even among the victims that they have a disease and help is available.

His clientele mainly comprises teenage boys and young male adults brought in by their parents after a drastic personal or professional setback. "Most play games for more than 10-14 hours a day. Their parents wake up to their condition only when there is a drastic drop in academics, a failure in professional life or visible social alienation," said Dr Sharma. By the time they come to the clinic, most have sleep deprivation, irritability, lack of communication with friends and family, among other problems.

At the Behavioural Addictions Clinic (BAC) run by the psychiatry department every Saturday at New Delhis AIIMS, most come with similar symptoms. "Gadget addiction is perhaps at the top followed by technology and social media dependence. We see female patients too but fewer in number," said Dr Yatan Pal Singh Balhara, associate professor of psychiatry at AIIMS. The journey to recovery is not easy either, he added.

"It could take 6-8 weeks of intense cognitive therapy during which they are taught how to handle the craving for playing games, how to counter discomfort, if not gaming what else they can do," he said. Dr Sharma said one in five may need hospitalisation to deal with sleep disturbances.

But gaming addiction is more complex than just losing control over how many hours to play and when to stop. According to Dr Balhara, most victims suffer from underlying social anxiety, phobia, depression and even drug abuse, which get addressed along with their gaming addiction when they come to the clinic. Echoing his view, Dr Sharma said gaming addiction is not different from other psychological issues born out of societal changes. "We treat boys who are given expensive playstations by their parents who dont have enough time to spend with the children. Recently, we treated a 14-year-old boy whose addiction has led to a marital discord between his parents who are blaming each other for his condition," said the doctor.

Dr Ajit Bhide, president of Indian Psychiatric Society, said that while its known that gaming has addictive properties, the WHO move will definitely usher in better awareness. However, Dr Balhara, cautioned that unlike gambling that has concrete scientific proof and is already listed as a disorder, more study needs to go into the extent of gaming disorder.

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