Mat Bergendahl, MS, LPC, was with the Air Force Security Forces when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Like many servicemembers, he managed to bring along some personal effects. And, like many people his age, that included his PlayStation 2.
For many in the military, it was a common method to decompress and to take their mind away from the war going on around them.
As he was getting ready to go back to the States, Bergendahl said he was told to keep his experiences in that war to himself. “Our fire team leader told us, ‘Don’t tell anybody what happened to you or what you saw, or you’ll never be able to carry a weapon again and you’ll be scrubbing the halls and walls like you did something wrong.’”
Bergendahl might not have believed his team leader, but he certainly believed what his words indicated—that there was a serious mental health stigma in the military and that it would be difficult for veterans and servicemembers to seek help.
Back home, Bergendahl was going to school for industrial electronics and management at Black Hills State University in South Dakota and doing a work study at the Rapid City VA. A problem with school credits forced him to change his major. He chose psychology then, realizing a bachelor’s degree wouldn’t get him very far; he went on to get his master’s and his LPC.
“While that was happening, I began to develop a deeper understanding of my fellow veterans and their grappling with PTSD,” Bergendahl explained. “I have a diagnosis of PTSD myself. I really wanted to use my knowledge of our population and the knowledge I have of mental healthcare to try to come up with a solution that would really meet the needs of the current generation of veterans.”
“[At VA], I was working with veterans who are often isolated and haven’t been out of their house and getting them together at vet centers and building up a local community and social support,” he added. “A lot of my clients at the time had no friends. They had no one to call if they were having issues or trauma.”
That’s when he became involved with StackUp, an organization created in 2015 with the mission of bringing civilians and veterans together through a shared love of video gaming. Bergendahl helped with the creation of the StackUp Overwatch Program, designed to provide 24-hour online support for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and emotional distress.
Through computers and gaming consoles, veterans can sign into a server that allows them to participate in text chat, direct messaging, voice chat or even video chat. Those interactions can be in a group with other veterans or in one-on-one counseling. The program uses Discord—freeware developed for the gaming industry that people who participate in online gaming would likely be familiar and comfortable with.
Bergendahl was asked to use his clinical experience to develop a training program for the volunteers that work the STOP chat lines. Drawing from the training he received in his master’s program, Bergendahl created live scenarios for the STOP volunteers, utilizing performers to act out different situations that the online counselors would have to work through.
“Our peer-to-peer support specialists are very goal-oriented and solution-oriented,” he explained. “A person should leave the conversation with a sense of what to do and where to go.”
Bergendahl was brought on to oversee the entire program in November 2018. It was good timing for him. He’d resigned his position with VA following a diagnosis of leukemia the previous winter. Now cancer-free, he hopes to return to counseling but is spending his time growing and improving STOP.
That includes working to legitimize video games as a way to help veterans recover from mental health challenges. He and StackUp have been working with Michelle Colder Carras, PhD, a public health researcher from Johns Hopkins University whose work focuses on videogames and mental health. Her research has shown that gameplay can not only provide a psychological escape but can promote confidence, social connection and personal growth.
“[Doctor Carras’] research is bringing scientific backing to what most of us already know about the benefits of gaming,” Bergendahl explained. “Gaming really does have a value in society, and it’s not just the old preconceived ideas that people who are in their 30s, 40s, 50s and still playing videogames never grew up. That’s not the case anymore.”
Bergendahl hopes that this research will help those outside the gaming community realize its mental health benefits, including grant-giving agencies.
“I would love to be able to pay my staff,” Bergendahl said. “These folks are all volunteers. The rigorous amount of training and pressure that’s put on them—I try and reward them for it. Right now, it’s giving them a game code so they can download a videogame.”
While the first veterans to take advantage of STOP were mostly gamers, that’s changing as word of mouth about the service spreads. “Once we would have considered ourselves a niche service, because we’re in the gaming community,” Bergendahl said. “But, more and more, we’re getting veterans popping up who aren’t into gaming but are in need.”
Bergendahl and StackUp recently traveled to PAX East, an annual gaming convention in Boston, where they met with other members of the gaming community and made connections with veterans who didn’t know about their service.
“As a veteran, I struggled to come to terms with being back. Feeling like I was stuck between two lives—military and civilian,” one veteran who met the group there testified. “Running into StackUp at PAX East was a surprise. They felt like family. … I’m proud to be a part of their community. … I can immediately hop on [Discord] and have a conversation with them and game with them. And it’s always easier to talk to someone digitally or through an avatar. … Especially when you have this warrior mentality that you know you’re supposed to be the big tough guy. No one is supposed to see you cry.”