An 11-year-old Montreal boy has developed a video game aimed at reducing stigma and educating his peers about mental health, an initiative his mother says has helped him navigate the loss of his father.
The game, built inside popular gaming platform Roblox, allows users to navigate their characters through the journey of depression.
Jumping over gray blocks that represent depression, users are presented with different facts and figures about mental health, including messages like “depression is a disease; it is not a person’s fault.”
Eventually, the obstacle course changes to reveal happier, more colourful blocks—Luke's creative way of saying “it gets better.”
The conversation surrounding depression and mental health has been an important part of Luke’s childhood.
When he was just two-years-old, his father died by suicide after struggling with mental illness. Though he wasn’t old enough to understand the circumstances of his father’s death, his mother, Paula Toledo, made it her life’s mission to navigate the intricacies of mental health with her young sons.
“I knew that I needed to help them with their feelings, but I didn’t know how to do it. My gut told me that at such a young age I didn’t want to take them to a therapist office and leave them in the room,” Toledo told CTVNews.ca.
After speaking to an expert in play therapy, Toledo began using play as a way to guide her children through the loss, helping them to understand and communicate their feelings through activities.
“I would always answer their questions in an age appropriate way,” she explained. “I didn’t ever want my children to feel that they couldn’t talk about their mental health.”
Following the loss of her husband, Toledo became a vocal mental health advocate, sharing her family’s story on the TEDxLaval stage and through her blog “Ode to Wonder.” Both her blog and her TEDx speech discuss how her children’s wonder and imagination inspired her to use wonder to help people work through life’s challenges.
“It helped me discover a new way to look at the world. During the really difficult days the motivation to be with my children was never less than what it was before I lost my husband because they have such a pure sense of wonder about the world,” she said.
“I have a very deep belief that using our imagination is a resilience building tool.”
Toledo says her son was inspired to create the game after attending WE Day, an annual youth empowerment event organized by Canadian charity WE.
“The thing I thought that was so magical was that he wanted to teach his friends about it,” she explained.
Luke already has plans to enhance his game, including more mental health information and creating online meditation spaces in an effort to teach kids about ways they can take care of their mental health in real life.
According to Laura Higgins, director of digital civility for Roblox, Luke’s game is a great example of the power of play.
“I was so touched when I first heard about it,” said Higgins. “This is what online civility is all about—having empathy and wanting to bring the best out of other people.”
As Luke and his mother continue to work on the game together, Higgins says she hopes games like this will help bring families together.
“Play is really essential,” she explained. “This is a great example of how play can be really therapeutic for adults too.”