Teens use VR headsets and controllers in three side-by-side images, each showing one person using VR

Seattle Public Library Helps Teens Explore Mental Health With Virtual Reality

by Agueda Pacheco Flores

Inside a cabin surrounded by greenery, flowers, and evergreens are colored pebbles, pots, labels, a compost machine, and a seed-creator machine. The sound of birds chirping and a little goat can be heard periodically. A few steps away from the cabin is a cave, and on the walls of its entrance is the question “How are you feeling today?” with buttons for emotions, such as happy, angry, hopeful, and stressed. 

The virtual reality (VR) game, called “De-Stress Gardening,” is alluring for the same reason many agricultural farming games are popular: They are designed to imitate nature, and as opposed to being competitive, are goal-oriented and have low stakes. But “De-Stress Gardening” is still more unique. It was co-designed by a group of 12 teens from around Seattle (as far south as South Park and as far north as Greenwood) with the help of The Seattle Public Library (SPL) staff and student interns from the University of Washington (UW), with the goal of destigmatizing mental health. 

“One of the things that, for me, was very transformative was allowing these conversations to happen,” said Juan Rubio, SPL program manager and project lead. “It was like hesitation in the beginning, because you’re so unfamiliar about just mentioning mental health, but in this space, because we were intentional, it became more normal.”

For six months, the group of 12 teens met virtually with Rubio, other SPL staff, and UW interns and researchers. They talked and learned about mental health, workshopped ideas, and brainstormed designs. SPL staff were surprised to see such high retention among the teens (between the ages of 14 and 16), who came back to the remote meetings every other week.

“De-Stress Gardening” is just one of three virtual reality projects funded by a grant offered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2020 to help libraries respond to the pandemic. SPL provided additional funding to launch the mental health-focused initiative alongside the District of Columbia Public Library in Washington, D.C., and the Fayette Public Library, Museum & Archives in La Grange, Texas.

With the program now finished, SPL has worked with its two partner libraries to launch the VRtality.org website, which gives libraries and other youth-serving organizations a step-by-step road map to replicate the process of working with teens to design a mental health-centered VR game. The VR games are also available for download on the website for anyone with a VR headset. The games are compatible with the Oculus Quest 2, which the library offers on loan to community groups. 

A teen uses a VR headset and controller while a projector behind them shows the virtual reality game they are playing
Seattle teens have co-designed goal-oriented, low-stakes games made to destigmatize mental health. (Photo: courtesy of The Seattle Public Library)

“This common theme … seems to appear a lot when we come up with ideas for what we want to do in the VR … like pets or nature, and what was really interesting to us was this sort of concept, constructive destruction; [the teens] want the VR space to be a place where they can express their frustration and negative emotions in some way,” said Jin Ha Lee, one of the UW investigators involved with the project. 

An element of “De-Stress Garden” allows players to smash and destroy inanimate shapes and objects in order to collect color material for the garden. 

The other mental health game designs include “Animal Excursion,” where players walk through a forest interacting with woodland creatures, designed by the students in Texas, and “Purrrniverse,” a game about a typical cat that knocks things off tables, designed by students in D.C.

In a presentation that Elin Bj​​örling, one of the principal UW investigators on the VR project, made to teens, she said teens experience the most amount of chronic stress of any other age group. 

“Teens are becoming more stressed and more depressed, especially in the U.S.,” she said. 

The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, warned last year in a report that the pandemic had intensified an already urgent teen mental health crisis.

The momentum behind virtual reality has grown exponentially with Facebook releasing its new VR platform Meta, and as physical distancing became the norm during the pandemic. But the potential for VR as a therapeutic tool is also steadily catching on, making SPL an institution that’s ahead of the curve. 

Since 2019, SPL has been experimenting with virtual reality, creating learning environments for patrons. It has offered interactive VR exhibits that explored the history of the Great Seattle Fire as well as one that explored the evolution of the Duwamish River. 

Rubio, who has led many of these VR projects at SPL, says the potential of VR for youth is an opportunity. 

“The opportunity for young people to imagine futures, to think of, what is possible? What is their desire?” he said. “In this way, it’s innovative, and it also appeals to their sensibility — they’re gamers.”

The library’s interest in VR and mental health is just another way SPL is expanding what it can offer to the community and perhaps add to the ways libraries help their communities. 

“It really gave an opportunity to sort of reimagine the role of libraries and librarians in the mental health space,” said Lee. “We’re never going to be in a situation where everybody in all communities have access to mental health resources, but libraries can really help, because it’s a really well-established infrastructure in our society, even for small and rural communities.”

Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly implied that VRtality website was created for teens to create experiences. This article was updated on 04/13/2022 to clarify that the website was created for library staff to use.

Agueda Pacheco Flores is a journalist focusing on Latinx culture and Mexican American identity. Originally from Querétaro, Mexico, Pacheco Flores is inspired by her own bicultural upbringing as an undocumented immigrant and proud Washingtonian.

📸 Featured Image: The Seattle Public Library, along with the District of Columbia Public Library in Washington, D.C., and the Fayette Public Library, Museum & Archives in La Grange, Texas, used virtual reality technology as a way to help teens deal with stress during the pandemic. (Photo: courtesy of The Seattle Public Library)

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