Can Doctor Who help children recover from depression?
Janina Scarlet1, Ph.D. and Meghan Gardner2
1 Alliant International University, San Diego, CA
2 Wizards & Warriors Camp in Burlington and Waltham, MA
In a 2014, Alliant International University and Wizards & Warriors Summer Camp partnered to perform a pilot study which used elements from Doctor Who. The results of the study revealed that Doctor Who may be helpful in reducing depression, and increasing social interaction and compassion in children. The implications of the psychological benefits of the series are discussed in the paper.
Participants were recruited from the sample pool of the campers of the co-ed Wizards & Warriors Summer Camp, which took place over the summer 2014. Wizards & Warriors Summer Camp specializes in having campers portray a heroic version of themselves as they navigate live adventures where they fight monsters and solve mysteries. The participants were asked to fill out the study-related surveys online immediately prior to attending the camp, immediately after the completion of the camp, and one month after the completion of the camp (follow-up).
All survey responses were anonymous. The campers filled out the standard demographic form, listing their age, gender/sex, and ethnicity. Social connectedness was measured via the Social Connectedness Scale, (Lee, et al.), depression was assessed using the Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (Angold et al.), and compassion toward others was assessed via the Compassion toward Others Scale (Pommier). Finally, the participants’ qualitative responses regarding their experiences at the camp were also collected.
The campers spent two weeks in a co-ed overnight camp, where an actor portraying The Doctor from the popular BBC television show, Doctor Who, verbally taught and modeled to them about compassion, acceptance, loss, and courage (see below for specifics). Camp counselors and administrators were present throughout the training.
On the first day of camp, the campers were introduced to The Doctor (most children were already familiar with the character). The Doctor educated the campers about his past adventures, teaching them about the various creatures he had come across, the many villains he helped defeat, as well as the various losses he endured. Through acting out certain scenarios, similar to the TV series, the campers were taught compassion, acceptance, tolerance, and courage. For example, The Doctor introduced the campers to actors dressed as goblins, grotesque creatures, who were experiencing a challenge and were feared and distrusted by many based on their appearance.
The Doctor appealed to the campers’ sense of compassion by encouraging them to identify with what the creatures were feeling and take a compassionate action. This served as a metaphor to teach the campers to practice acceptance toward other individuals, as well as their own emotions, which at times can be intimidating, at least on the surface level. The children were in fact able to develop compassion toward these creatures over time. This is indicative of the research discussed above which suggests that by identifying with fictional characters, people are more likely to become compassionate toward individuals who are going through a hard time.
In addition, an above study demonstrated that when participants identify with a superhero (or in this case, a heroic version of themselves), they are more likely to offer help to someone. In addition, the campers were able to learn how to cope with loss and death. In one particular lesson, The Doctor was taken by an anthropomorphized representation of Death in order to protect the campers. During this experiential lesson, the children were able to experience grief in an interactive theatrical fashion with the Doctor explaining that it is acceptable to grieve and elaborating on the concepts of loss and acceptance to them before he was taken. Just as the Doctor helped a little boy (in a TV episode), Rupert, overcome his fear of the monster under the bed, he also helped the campers face their fear of loss and grief when Death took the Doctor.
The specific lessons the campers participated in were as follows: empathy and compassion, non-judgmental acceptance, self-confidence, courage (facing one’s fear), and facing loss/death. The results found that all measures demonstrated significant improvements after the two weeks of Doctor Who camp training. Specifically, the compassion toward other people scores significantly improved after the 2-week intervention and continued to improve even after the participants left the camp. On the other hand, the depression scores significantly improved immediately after the training but began to dip again during the follow-up. Finally, social connectedness was significantly improved after the camp training. The social connectedness trend began to reduce during the follow-up, however, the reduction was not significant, suggesting that the campers were able to maintain their social connectedness even after the camp was over. These results after just a few weeks of exposure to the fictional character are exciting in that they demonstrate that it might not take much to develop a significant change in children’s mental health and that this change can potentially be produced by identification with a TV character, such as the Doctor.
In addition, the qualitative responses seemed to indicate that the participants enjoyed their experience at the camp. Overall, 96% of the participants reported that they enjoyed their camp experiences, e.g., “It has given me more than expected. I never expected to be changed this much. [The camp] has done its best to make me a better person” with more than 81% stating that they were able to form new and meaningful social connections “It gave me friends. Friends that would help me and lift me up,” and “My friends felt almost as close as family,” with many participants reporting that they felt more connected to the Doctor and other campers than to their usual friends and family. Many participants reported that they still maintain contact with the people they met in the camp.
In addition, the majority of the participants also reported that connecting with the Doctor taught them to be more compassionate toward themselves, “Because I spent so much time in my character’s shoes, it is definitely easier for me to see things from another perspective…and this has helped me be more compassionate towards myself and others when I otherwise wouldn’t have been, because I can look at myself as just another human in need,” and toward others, “It taught me about the importance and difference in everyone.”
Finally, 86% reported an increased sense of confidence, which is thought to be an indication of positive affect and depression reduction (Brown, Elliott, Boardman, Ferns, & Morrison, 511-5).
This study demonstrated that the Doctor Who character can be used to teach children about compassion and social connection. Specifically, since the majority of the children were able to identify with the Doctor, who was portrayed by an actor versed in the character as depicted in the television series, Doctor Who, many reported that they were able to become more compassionate toward themselves and others, fostering an improved social connection.
Even though the children were not strangers to social environments, spending the majority of their school year surrounded by peers, most reported that they felt more connected to the Doctor and to the other children at the camp compared to other people in their lives after only two weeks of training. This connection with the Doctor, and his explanation of his various life experiences as depicted by the television series, allowed the children to explore their own feelings and identify with the behavior which the Doctor modeled. The children were able to practice self-acceptance, as well as acceptance of others, they reported increases in self-esteem, and were more likely to understand and identify with others.
Full results of the study are posted at Superhero-Therapy.com.
For more information on the study, contact:
Dr. Janina Scarlet