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How suicidal thoughts led Jason Docton to save the lives of at-risk gamers


Jason Docton wanted to help save lives and he thought his path to doing that was through medical school. But that didn’t work out, and yet he still found a path to saving lives — only through the time that he spent playing video games.

Docton’s path shows not only the unpredictability of finding your purpose in life, but also the power of video games when it comes to helping people realize that they’re not all alone.

A decade ago, Docton was a medical student at the University of California at Los Angeles. He had to operate on very little sleep. He had a panic attack, and it knocked him off his routine. He had more attacks and began to withdraw. He dropped out of school and spent his days playing World of Warcraft. Docton never wanted to leave his place.

He became suicidal, and he began planning for his end. As part of this, Docton talked to other people about their suicidal thoughts. But then it occurred to him that he should try to save someone else from suicide. He and his friends formed a guild called Anxiety Gaming inside WoW, dedicated to talking to people who were suicidal — to trying to save them. They found they needed to refer these people to professional counselors, and they tried to raise money for that purpose.

The guild moved to League of Legends, another popular game, and they caught the attention of the pop band Imagine Dragons, which raised money for them. But the work was hard, and one guildmate ended his life after failing to secure therapy. Docton formed a nonprofit, Rise Above the Disorder, or RAD. The group connected guildmates and others with psychiatrists and found them real clinical help.

All told, the nonprofit has raised $10 million to date, and it has served more than 3,200 gamers. Streamers and game companies such as Runescape maker Jagex have helped raise money for RAD. I interviewed Docton about his experiences, and he told a very compelling story.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Jason Docton founded Rise Above the Disorder to stop suicides.

Image Credit: Rise Above the Disorder

Origins

GamesBeat: Can you tell me how you got started, and more about your background?

Jason Docton: This all starts maybe 10 or so years ago. I was a medical student. I was working on an ambulance 12 hours a day, going to school 9 hours a day, sleeping whenever I possibly could. I had my first panic attack. I remember thinking during this panic attack that I was going to die somehow. Not being able to figure out what was going on — I had just enough medical knowledge to be very concerned about my heart racing and feeling this intense pain in my chest, but not enough self-awareness to realize that it wasn’t a medical emergency in that case.

I noticed that every time I was out and about — I started to feel this way going to work, going to school. More and more of this feeling, these panic attacks. I slowly started to withdraw from everything. I developed what’s called agoraphobia, this fear of leaving my safe place, which was my home at the time. I just didn’t leave anymore. I’d look up maybe a year or two later and realize I hadn’t left home in that much time. All I’d do to pass the time, to not feel so anxious, was play World of Warcraft.

I came to the conclusion very quickly that I just wasn’t going to get better. I didn’t think I was going to get better. All I was doing was playing games. Maybe I’d just take my life and end it here. But I had this weird thought in my mind, that if I took my life, then I was just subtracting from the world. If I could prevent someone else from taking their life, maybe that would create some kind of balance. That was the plan. I set off to convince someone not to take their life in the only world that I actually existed in, and that was World of Warcraft.

So begins the initial quest of our nonprofit. It was just hoping that I could save someone else so that I could justify taking my life.

GamesBeat: Had you finished your medical studies by then, or did you just drop out?

Docton: I ended things [at medical school]. It’s always been a dream to go back. But there hasn’t been the time. I would eventually find this person that I wanted to help and convince them to not take their life over the course of a few months. Very quickly I became full with so many people that wanted to follow up on this offer of talking with them, to talk with them about life and about suicide and remaining here. My initial quest was trying to justify taking my own life, but it quickly became, how do I stop people from taking theirs?

People started to join this idea. It was myself talking with a lot of people back-to-back-to-back. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I couldn’t go anywhere. I was just filling all of my hours talking with people. And then more joined. They were open to talking with people as well. We formed a guild in World of Warcraft called Anxiety Gaming. It was just dedicated to that. Tons of people listening, talking. I had to take a step back and think, “OK, maybe talking with people is helpful. But people need to talk with professionals. People are coming to us with pretty serious issues — depression, anxiety. Maybe we should start connecting everyone with licensed mental health professionals.”

That’s what we started doing. People join the guild. They give us a zip code and a rough idea what they’re going through. We find them a therapist. We started doing this for a ton of people. More people started joining, though, and saying, “Can you find a therapist that accepts my insurance? Can you find a therapist that can work with this budget?” We started trying to find therapists like that. And then of course the next step from there is, “I can’t afford to see a therapist. How do I get help?” We started to crowdfund people’s mental health care, finding people therapists, finding a means to afford therapy for them, and paying the therapist on their behalf.

That became a huge focus of our guild.

Above: The Anxiety Gaming guild in 2015.

Image Credit: Rise Above the Disorder

GamesBeat: Is the guild still going today?

Docton: In a very different form. What we were really doing in the game to crowdfund is we were boosting people. If you wanted the best gear, if you wanted max level, we were able to provide that to people in exchange for what we used to fund people’s mental health care. At some point we moved to League of Legends as that game became very popular, and we started doing similar services there. That’s where we were noticed by a couple of big content creators on Twitch.

Eventually, we got connected to some of their fans who happened to be in a famous band, Imagine Dragons. They wanted to do a fundraiser for what we were doing. “This is really cool. You shouldn’t have to sell stuff to pay for people’s mental health care. We can help you. But you can’t just be a World of Warcraft guild. You have to be a nonprofit if we’re going to fundraise for you.” So we decided to become a nonprofit. We left the guild idea behind, formed a cause around trying to pay for people’s mental health care, and our first big fundraiser was with Imagine Dragons.

GamesBeat: How recently was that?

Docton: That’s maybe 2015 or so.

Survival

GamesBeat: Going back a bit, how did you learn to talk to people again, to know what to say to them?

Docton: I think the intuitive nature just came from being in that place. Talking with somebody about the thought of suicide, while actively having those thoughts yourself. Soothing yourself and applying that to others. A lot of my days became filled with researching this. As the hours go by, there’s no sleep schedule. There’s no work. I was living off of Social Security. I just focused entirely on how to help this person, how to help more people.

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It helped to have some of the medical training. It helped to have been an EMT for a long time, riding in the ambulances and working with people in crisis, having that kind of training. But it became a case of, peer support can be helpful, but when you’re talking to someone who’s struggling seriously with their mental health, a lot of the time professional help is what’s necessary. We became very quickly focused on connecting people to professionals instead.

GamesBeat: How large has the organization become now?

Docton: We got enough funding through Imagine Dragons to pay for about 3,000 people’s mental health care, just straightaway. Therapy sessions, medication if they needed it. We were covering as much as we could. But we’ve really ramped up since then. We’ve been able to help a little over 36,000 people now. We have about a dozen or so staff members, most of them social workers, and they spend much of their time connecting with people, doing assessments with them, figuring out resources that they can access. They do a lot of what we originally did, connecting people with therapists local to them and making sure that the funds go there. What we’re raising, what donations come in that are being used to pay for that person’s therapy.

Hard experiences

GamesBeat: And I guess sometimes it doesn’t always work.

Docton: Unfortunately. That situation marked the transition fully from Anxiety Gaming, what we used to go by, to RAD. After raising all of this money with Imagine Dragons, there was just a list of people who reached out and wanted help. They’d never been able to get help because they couldn’t afford it. We were paying for everyone that we could. Once we ran out of that money, we were burnt out. We’d never expected to become anything more than just this video game guild. We retired and let the nonprofit expire, and we didn’t think too much about that other than, “Cool, we did that. We helped a bunch of people.”

A couple of months go by. Every once in a while, somebody would reach out and ask if we were still covering the cost of therapy for people, and we’d let them know. “Not anymore, but you can join the guild and hang out.” But all of that changed when this 19-year-old reached out. He had let us know that he lived in this really rural area up in Georgia. One night his parents and his grandparents, who he lived with, decided to go out to dinner. He decided to stay home and play games. He’s 19 and that’s what he wants to do. But they went out, and on the drive into town they got into a car accident. They didn’t survive.

This 19-year-old, who was just left alone there, he was told by the sheriffs when they broke the news to him that a social worker would come to check on him and make sure that he was OK, but nobody ever did. Eventually, the banks realized that nobody was paying the mortgage. Nobody was there to pay the mortgage. They foreclosed on him, and he became homeless.

He had heard about us through this content creator, Trick2g, some time before all of this. On a whim he decided to go to our website, reach out from a library computer, and see if there was anything we could do to help. I heard this story. I took it to the rest of the guild and said, “Look, we have to help this kid. He’s just in this terrible situation.” We committed to that. We wanted to help him.

We very quickly realized that, aside from being able to sell services in the game, we had no idea how to fundraise. Selling services in the game was a thing we could do before we blew and had tens of thousands of followers and did a concert with Imagine Dragons. Now Blizzard, Riot, the places where we were doing these services, they knew who we were. We couldn’t go back to doing those things without getting banned.

Imagine Dragons

Above: Imagine Dragons has been a benefactor to Rise Above the Disorder.

Image Credit: Imagine Dragons

We found a therapist for Ben, but all these therapists are worried about working with him because he’s actively suicidal. It’s very complex. He was struggling with homelessness, with grief. There’s so many pieces. Inpatient is really the only option that makes sense. Inpatient’s expensive. The place we wanted to go with, the only place that had the availability to see him, was $10,000 a month. That’s a reasonable price, unfortunately, for inpatient without insurance.

We tried. I convinced them to do $1,000 for a first month. We were putting our disability checks together, asking friends and family on Facebook. We were going everywhere we could asking for pennies, dollars, whatever we could get. But three or so weeks into trying to fundraise all of this, we heard from one of his friends that he had taken his life. It was a lot to deal with.

That day was — it was a very powerful reality as far as how serious this situation is. This wasn’t just a group of gamers playing games and helping people on the side. It was the reality that this is mental health care in this country. This is how people live. Almost all of us who were at home, on Social Security, barely functioning, barely alive, were here because we couldn’t afford help, even with social services. But in the most extreme, in the most dire, when a teenager is in circumstance that they have no control over, that this person was left to die because they couldn’t afford help — that was not something that we could live with, that we could tolerate.

We doubled down. “We have to be a nonprofit. We have to try to remove the barriers of cost. We need to figure out how to fundraise. That’s what we have to do.” That’s what we set out to do. We’ve become very effective at it. We’ve remained in gaming as the main method to fundraise and build community, because it’s all we really know. As painful as it always is that we couldn’t help him, we’ve been able to help many more people. We’re going to keep his spirit alive within our cause.

Rise Above the Disorder

GamesBeat: When did you restart the nonprofit?

Docton: Technically, we were a nonprofit in 2015 or so. Ben passed around 2017, around that timeline. We made the switch over to RAD not too long after. 2018 is when we started to have that branding around us. We’ve pushed with that ever since.

GamesBeat: How busy are you now, with 36,000 people that RAD has helped?

Docton: It’s been a wild ride, for sure. We’ve been able to reach tons of people. We’re finding a lot of support within the community. Even just [recently], one of our tweets is around 12,000 likes. We’ve become this household name within the gaming community, a safety net for a lot of people. It’s been very rewarding, very powerful.

GamesBeat: You’ve raised more than $10 million now? What services does that go toward?

Docton: That goes to this idea of universal mental health care. Anybody that can’t afford the cost of therapy, can’t afford their medication. Prior to COVID this would also cover transportation. Somebody who doesn’t have a car, maybe needs an Uber to and from sessions, we would be able to cover the cost of that. In a pinch sometimes we cover just general medical checkups. Maybe somebody with an eating disorder who might have done damage to their physical body, we want them to get checked up with a medical doctor and see that everything is OK and they’re not at risk.

Above: An in-game banner for Rise Above the Disorder in Runescape.

Image Credit: Rise Above the Disorder

GamesBeat: How have you gone into fundraising? Have you been able to engage with game companies?

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Docton: Lots of fundraising coming from different publishers. One of our biggest publishing supporters is Jagex, the people who make Runescape. We’ve done a lot of work with them over the past few years. We work a lot with Electronic Arts. We provide free mental health care to all professional players of EA titles — Apex, Madden, FIFA. If you’re a professional player for any of those, you have free mental health care through RAD where EA has completely covered the cost.

We do a lot of work with esports teams. We have a good amount of experience working with professional players, content creators. We’ve seen hundreds of content creators, hundreds of professional players, because we have that unique experience in between serious clinical concerns, but also knowing the culture of gaming. Those have a cost association — they’re not free — but that helps cover the cost for other people who can’t afford mental health care. We do a lot of those as more like tradeoffs.

Fundraising-wise, we’ve done some amazing fundraisers. Last year we teamed with Wiz Khalifa, xQc, pretty much all of the top content creators on Twitch at the time to help talk more about the importance of mental health and to provide the donations to cover costs of mental health care.

GamesBeat: It sounds like you have to stay busy to maintain that attention and help people realize what you do.

Docton: There’s so many different aspects to it. There’s the stigma initially around mental health altogether. Discomfort talking about these issues, the cultural stigmas. In so many cultures this is taboo. Some of that has to be overcome. But then there are plenty of people who can be okay with mental health as a topic, but when it comes to seeing professional help, then another stigma exists. Undoing that piece is difficult. We have to pass a few different barriers to get to people. But we certainly stay very busy. Our services are always pretty much just right at capacity or waitlisted, just because of the general need. On a global basis as well, we’ve been to 133 countries now where we’ve provided mental health care and mental health services.

GamesBeat: There are quite a few organizations out there now, even just in gaming. Are you allied with any others that are also addressing mental health in some way?

Docton: We would be the only one that provides direct help. Different groups provide research or resource pages, awareness. All of those, we definitely have some level connection with them or a working relationship. But we exist as the backbone for everybody within the space when it comes to the action piece. If you’re providing awareness and somebody genuinely needs to see a mental health professional, that’s where people come to us. We exist as such a strong backbone that even national services like Crisis Text Line use us on a very heavy basis. We had to take a break one week to just get caught up. Somebody from Crisis Text Line, a director from there, reached out and asked when we would open back up, because they refer so many people to us consistently.

Directly covering the cost of mental health care, nobody is doing that, because from a business perspective, even though we’re a nonprofit, it’s not a smart business. For us that’s just our mission. That’s our passion.

The pandemic

GamesBeat: What has changed for you during the pandemic? I imagine there’s a lot more people coming forward with problems.

Docton: Yeah, a lot. A lot has changed. We’re seeing people who had never expected to get help, never thought that they would be somebody who would want to see a therapist. But the isolation gets to us. It’s tragic to see. We’re also getting a new kind of person who needs our grants. Usually the kinds of people who need access to us paying for their mental health care, they come from poverty. They’ve experienced loss that has led them to poverty. We’re usually not only paying for their mental health care, but trying to help them apply for food stamps, housing, Social Security benefits, things along those lines.

Now we’re getting a lot of people who have had health care, who had an income, and very suddenly it’s gone. They got laid off and had no idea what would happen. COVID hit and their business went under or needed to cut down. They’re on medication and now they can’t afford it, or they were seeing a therapist and now they can’t, but this is the worst time for them to lose access to therapy. We’re working a lot lately with people who are very suddenly without resources, without support, that are used to having that and depended on those resources.

Above: Runescape helps raise money for Rise Above the Disorder.

Image Credit: Rise Above the Disorder

GamesBeat: Have you been able to automate anything to direct people to help, either through the web or other tech? It sounds like you probably don’t have enough people to deal with this kind of demand.

Docton: We’ve looked at automation, at matching people with therapists through AI or algorithms, but the very personal approach is the one we prefer. The very engaged, the very calculated. It’s a bit more traditional. When someone applies they’re going to do a video call with one of our licensed social workers and talk with them. They’ll have that face to face as much as we can do face to face these days. That person will be able to help them learn more about what the process looks like.

The side that we struggle to keep up with is just the monetary side, honestly. With the infinite amount of people who could need mental health care, it’s always a race to fundraise more and cover more. Finding a therapist for someone and telling that therapist, “Hey, we’re going to pay you on their behalf,” therapists are usually pretty excited for that idea. “OK, cool. You’re giving me the business? That’s great.” Our team is pretty well-equipped. We can see about 800 people at any given time and rotate through.

GamesBeat: How does that compare to how many people are coming in? Do you have a sense of how many people need help?

Docton: It really changes from week to week. Some weeks are aggressive. Some weeks we can have as many as 400 people apply. Other weeks it’s a steady pace, 100 or just below. A lot of it depends on whether we’ve done a big fundraiser recently. Have we started doing a collaboration with a big content creator recently? We’ll see a huge influx come in as we do those. Sometimes we’ll pace ourselves around those kinds of fundraisers just to make sure we’re caught up and ready to embrace if several hundred people reach out in a day or a week.

GamesBeat: Do you have more event-oriented fundraising campaigns? Are there things you do once a year, or several times a year? Or is it just whenever a streamer can get involved?

Docton: Usually, we try to funnel a lot of our big events around May, May being mental health awareness month. This month we have all kinds of stuff happening each day to pull on awareness, to grow our universal health care program and the funding for that substantially, teaming up with different developers to grow that. The next checkpoint we usually look for is in October. October 10 is World Mental Health Day, so we’ll do a lot of promotional pieces, talking pieces, interview pieces around then.

GamesBeat: A lot of companies last year were involved in charitable efforts for mental health, Black Lives Matter, and other causes. Did you see an increase in money coming in during the pandemic and all the turmoil last year?

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Docton: 2020 is when we partnered with EA. For them it was very much that, the realization that so many people are isolated now and not doing well. A lot of our big fundraising with Jagex and Runescape kicked off in 2020 in response to continued isolation. We saw some growth in 2020 as a cause. But certainly with the increased demand, we very quickly went well beyond that. Our target goal of how much we were hoping to spend on covering the cost of mental health care went well over. I think we were at 178 percent of what we intended to use in 2020 prior to knowing what 2020 would be like.

The Anxiety Gaming Guild

Above: The Anxiety Gaming Guild in its World of Warcraft days.

Image Credit: Rise Above the Disorder

The roadmap

GamesBeat: What’s coming up on the calendar or the agenda for you now?

Docton: Everything we have going on in May, some of the biggest content creators across Twitch are going to be teaming up. They’re not only going to be having conversations with us on stream to talk about the importance of therapy and seeking help, but to gather momentum around the idea that mental health care is a human right, that everybody should have access to this, that everybody deserves help should they want to seek it.

GamesBeat: What works the best for you? StreamLabs was able to embed donation buttons in Twitch pages. People could do it right on the same page without leaving the stream. Is that an effective way to do it?

Docton: Tiltify makes it super easy. You can go to Tiltify and set it up right there. We’ve created our own Twitch panel extension too that we’re getting ready to launch. That sits at the bottom of your Twitch page, and not only shows how much you’re raising, but translates that into how many therapy sessions that covers. It even has a “get help” button. You can see, number-wise, how many people choose to get help because of seeing that button on your page. We’re empowering content creators to see the impact they have with their own community.

GamesBeat: Was any expansion of your staff possible in the last year or so, or have you stayed at the same size?

Docton: We definitely extended our size in that time. For us, because it’s such a heavy social-work side, and finding the licensed therapists and paying them outside of us — social workers are able to see a substantial amount of people. What we’re trying to do is keep growing that social work piece throughout this year especially, maybe bring on four or five new social workers and increase our capacity from 800 or so to maybe 1,500 at any given time.

Adaptation

GamesBeat: How old are you now?

Docton: I’m 31. I was in my early 20s when this started, struggling to leave home. I didn’t manage to get out of home myself until we were already a nonprofit. I was there for a long time, putting other people’s mental health care first.

Above: Rise Above the Disorder event in 2018.

Image Credit: Rise Above the Disorder

GamesBeat: How do you feel these days?

Docton: Great. It’s very humbling. I’ve been able to travel the world to talk with people about mental health, to meet so many people that we’ve helped. I remember even the first time I left the state, I was terrified. Just terrified. We got an opportunity to speak at PAX in Seattle, so we flew out there. I remember getting there in front of the theater we were supposed to speak at, not seeing anyone, having a panic attack — great, we came out here terrified and nobody’s showed up — and eventually I walk into the theater, and it’s the biggest theater they have for speaking, so it looks especially empty. I run to the bathroom to finish my panic attack and come back, and the place is so filled that people are standing along the walls.

I don’t even remember giving the speech I had planned out. I was in-and-out of the anxiety. But I remember the first person to come to the microphone during the question and answer period. He had a real thick Australian accent. He said, “Hey, when I found out that you were going to be here, I had to come and make the trip. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m so and so. You helped me overcome my depression. I’m here because of you.” It was this line of people who had been in our program and been helped by us. It was just surreal, to put faces to usernames and game names and see what we were doing. That drove me keep moving, to keep going places.

We’ve been to the European Union parliament in Germany to talk about loot crates and in-game gambling, speaking against those and helping pass legislation across the EU. We’ve been to New York at the U.N. office there to talk about the importance of universal mental health care and help change how developing nations across southeast Asia would implement mental health care, based on our system. Hundreds of people’s causes were there and ours was chosen. We’ve been able to speak with the World Health Organization to talk about the work we’re doing and how gaming can play a role in people’s recovery and well-being.

From being trapped at home and wanting to take my life because I would never leave my room again, to I’ve been everywhere to talk and meet with people, it’s pretty cool.

GamesBeat: This is pretty life-changing.

Docton: That’s the name of the game, changing lives.

Above: Jason Docton in 2019

Image Credit: Rise Above the Disorder

GamesBeat: Is there more of an agenda for you now? You mentioned things like loot crates. How can gamers and the industry help more?

Docton: We work with a couple of different game studios and publishers now to better understand how to create healthy communities, how to engage with people. What to do when there are mental health concerns within a community. The things that create or prevent these issues. We do a lot of consulting on that side. When it comes to working with the community directly, we always look toward monthly contributions, because that gives a consistent way to measure covering therapy every week for someone. Fundraising through Twitch, that’s always one that we enjoy.

All of this we’re starting to build up toward one key effort, beyond fueling our universal mental health care system that we run online. Right now our biggest goal is to effectively open up a mental health clinic, a very large-scale mental health clinic. The St. Jude of mental health is kind of how we have it envisioned, a place where anybody can go and mental health care is entirely free. It’s provided at the quality that we’ve always wanted for people.

Those years back, we wanted a facility for this 19-year-old to be able to go and get help. He couldn’t afford it and we couldn’t fundraise it. Now the plan is to build that space, to own that space and remove the price entirely. We’re aggressively working toward that. We’re pretty close to being able to create that physical space.

Even though it’s a much more local space than working across 133 countries, the idea is that if we can create some kind of physical entity like this in the U.S., we can very much disrupt how the mental health care system works here. If we’re there providing the highest quality of care at no cost, that challenges others to step up. It forces them, from a capitalist perspective, to have to compromise in some way to keep up with us. That’s the next step for us, where we’re starting to point a lot of big support.

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