Comics have always been an all-ages medium, despite the art snobs’ best efforts to discount them as children's’ material, and in recent years they’ve only grown more powerful and more recognized as true literary works.
Like any art form, creating and consuming stories provides so much more than simple entertainment:
Stories are history - they tell us who we are, and who we’ve been.
Stories are religion - they tell us how to act, and to tell right from wrong.
Stories are medicine - they help us identify pain, and help us heal and grow from it.
For many years, comic books have been finding their way into doctors’ offices around the world; not in the waiting room, but in treatment, where counselors and psychologists are using comics to help victims of trauma overcome, heal, and grow. Sometimes referred to as “Graphic Medicine,” (which includes sites for Spanish-speaking users and Japanese-speaking users) the use of comics and graphic novels in the application of mental and emotional health is an ever-growing practice as comics and comic-culture becomes more and more prevalent in modern society.
Probably the foremost resource of comics for use in counseling starts with the Comicspedia - an extensively-researched database which lists comic book stories and specific issues cross-referenced with the emotional and mental issues they deal with. Created in February of 2010 by Doctor Patrick O’Connor, PsyD, the Comicspedia has provided countless counselors, psychologists, and therapists with an invaluable tool; as comics and their stories continue to grow in popularity, this database becomes ever more important as more and more people use it.
Got a client who likes Silver Surfer and is dealing with the loss of a loved one? There’s a reference for that.
Maybe your client likes Green Lantern and is struggling with living up to others’ expectations of them? There’s a reference for that.
An X-Men fan struggling with phobias? There’s a reference for that.
In addition to individual books and stories in reference to specific mental and emotional health concerns, Dr. O’Connor even includes helpful suggestions on how to use the issues in therapy to help guide clients.
Jason Johnson, LCSW and founder of Compass Solutions has been using comic books in therapy sessions for years. As a fan and avid comics reader himself, he started by drawing upon his own experience and reading - suggesting titles and stories he knew of and remembered - before leaning into the Comicspedia for additional tools.
“Comic books can be a powerful tool for clients to work with their thoughts and feelings in symbolic and non-threatening way to find resolutions for issues they struggle with in their lives.” — Jason P. Johnson, LCSW
Specializing in child and adolescent trauma, Serena Sullivan (M.A. - Clinical Psychology) takes the use of comics even further by helping her patients make their own comics as a way to express themselves in a safe manner.
“Comics tell a story. Creating a comic can allow a client to shape their story—explore different ways to think about their life, express feelings they might not have words for yet, process experiences in a safe environment, or practice new ways to interact with the world. Reading a comic book or graphic novel can give clients a story to identify with, and feel seen and heard. Comics can be used in many different therapeutic ways.” — Serena D. Sullivan, M.A.
Counselors are always looking for more ways to connect with their clients in order to help them heal. As pop culture continues to grow in modern society, it has proven invaluable to tap into fandoms and subcultures to build relationships with patients in order to assist them better. With the ever-growing legitimacy of comics as art, it is heartening to see them be used more readily as therapeutic tools, as well.
For more about comics and mental health, read Kk's article "Comics and Coping".