How Dungeons & Dragons can help SFU student wellness

SFU’s Health & Counselling blends high-fantasy roleplaying with group therapy


By: Mishaa Khan, Peak Associate

In a unique twist on therapy, SFU’s Health & Counselling services have combined group therapy with Dungeons & Dragons in the dungeon (or lower level) of Maggie Benston Centre. 

To learn more about the program, Dungeons & Worry Dragons, The Peak conducted an email interview with the clinical counsellor leading the group, David Lindskoog.

Lindskoog explains that “the primary focus is on establishing and maintaining a safe atmosphere so participants can work towards their counselling goals effectively [ . . . ] The other aspects of the group are roleplaying and counsellor-facilitated social interaction — this is the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) part!”

While this may sound like participants are just playing a game with strangers, Lindskoog explains that the game “provides a safe place for students to ‘face their fears’ about social interaction in a fun and supportive setting.” Additionally, Lindskoog states that this therapy group is ideal for anyone struggling with social anxiety, low social confidence, difficulty connecting meaningfully with others, deficits in social skills, or isolation or withdrawal from challenges such as low mood.

He summarizes the group’s activities by saying that “the roleplaying game is mostly a fun vehicle for us to do exposure therapy,” exposure therapy being a way for people to confront fears, anxieties, or stressful situations and contexts in safe settings. 

“Each participant creates a unique character — an adventurer in a fantasy world — and students participate in the group mostly from the perspective of that character [ . . . ] For example, if a student struggles with low social confidence, they may create a character who shares that same struggle and is working to overcome it, or they may create someone who is bold, reckless, or even over-confident to kind of ‘try on’ this way of interacting with others,” Lindskoog explains. 

Moreover, Lindskoog reports that roleplaying games can improve empathy, non-verbal communication, self- and other-awareness. The game emphasizes creative problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and helps students meaningfully navigate the failures that inevitably may be brought on by the dice. 

“Students are actually building resilience and practicing distress tolerance skills,” he explains. 

According to student reports, “Participants valued having a space for safe interactions with supportive others; taking pro-social “risks;” practicing social skills; developing self-awareness, creativity, and imagination; engaging with the story of the game; and generally exploring other ways of being through role playing their characters.”

Group therapy can be daunting to many, but students who were part of the group found it to be beneficial, and Lindskoog was happy with the outcomes. There was an average 16% improvement on social anxiety symptoms in the three groups that ran in 2019. 

While Lindskoog would like to reach more people, the group size caps at eight participants “so that everyone has an opportunity to participate meaningfully.” Though the group is currently full, Lindskoog says that on rare occasions, there are sometimes spots that open up in the middle of the semester, allowing students to join. If you are interested in joining, you can meet up with Lindskoog for an interview and be placed on a list for next semester’s group.