Psychologist Uses Comics to Treat Patients Oct 7

By Sterling Medical Staff

As comic books and graphic novels become increasingly popular source material for major motion pictures, they are also providing inspiration in a more unlikely realm: psychology.  Chicago Psychologist Dr. Patrick O’Connor, PsyD, who specializes in treating teens and young adults, has pioneered an effort to use comic books for therapy.

Dr. O’Connor first got the idea to use comic books as therapeutic tools when working in foster care. Dr. O’Connor recalls, “one day I had a question about whether there were any Batman and Robin comics that dealt with similar father/son issues as my clients, given that Dick Grayson [Robin, Batman’s sidekick] is a ward of Bruce Wayne.”1 His subsequent investigation into the question led Dr. O’Connor to the conclusion that comic books have the potential to be a great tool for connecting with patients.

Counselors and therapists have utilized the arts to connect with and help patients for years, and there are several qualities that make comic books an ideal vehicle for reaching teens and adolescents. Unlike books comprised solely of text, comic books have the added dimension of visual expression, making them more accessible to younger readers. And while a novel may appear daunting to those to aren’t avid readers, most single issue comic books take only 15 minutes to read.  “In the end, reading is reading, and if you have a child who hates to read, what better person than Batman or Spider-Man to get them interested?” Dr. O’Connor reflects.1

Another reason comic books work so well with troubled adolescents is that many characters in the stories deal with similar issues. Classic superheroes such as Batman and Spider-Man were inspired to fight crime after experiencing its traumatic effects firsthand. Many comics today deal with serious themes, such as gang violence and substance abuse. During an Ask Me Anything thread on the popular website Reddit, Dr. O’Connor related one such instance in which the content of a comic book got through to a reader: “I had a 17 year old gang member with a history of violence and substance abuse pause while reading an issue of Irredeemable, point to this panel, and say, ‘This is how I feel about the world. This describes it perfectly.’ That opened up a huge door for us.”2

His success with patients led Dr. O’Connor to found Comicspedia, an online database containing hundreds of individual comic book summaries. What’s more, the entries on Comicspedia are categorized by the theme, allowing visitors to search for stories that address their topic of interest.

While Dr. O’Connor imagines he isn’t the first to utilize comic books for therapy, he hopes that by doing so he can open up doors for others to do the same. With Comicspedia as a freely available resource, “folks can cut down the number of steps between wondering how they can use comics to help others and actually doing it in practice.”1