The Reset Room: stillness and sanctuary at MCM Comic Con
25 July, 2022
Core trainee Jason Ng on his experience running a relaxation space in a busy geek convention, and how this can help make the convention accessible to people with mental health problems.
Hi everyone, this is your friendly neighbourhood psychiatric core trainee, Jason Ng. If you get that reference, then you’ve probably been to, or at least heard of, a comic book convention. In my case, I have been to MCM Comic Con almost every year for the past 8 years, and it has always been amazing: thousands of people dressed as their favourite characters (cosplaying) amongst rows and rows of pop culture memorabilia vendors, along with the usual overpriced food stalls (you know who you are, guy who sold the £10 katsu curry that was begrudgingly delicious).
However, this has been the first year I have ever been on the other side, supporting the convention. It’s a great feeling to skip the queues (priority lane baybee), but more importantly, it has given me a new insight into an event that I thought I knew all too well. It has become an annual staple for us in Gaming the Mind to help set up a ‘Reset Room’ at comic book and gaming conventions. The Reset Room is basically a quiet oasis in the middle of the busy convention, with gentle lighting, calm music, sensory toys, ear protectors, comfy seating, and mental health information. On top of that, we are present to talk to visitors about how they're feeling. The aim is to help visitors who are feeling overwhelmed by the busy convention, for whatever reason, and to raise mental health awareness.
In at the deep end
As this was my first year with GTM, and I had a grand total of zero Reset Room experiences, I was a little worried about how much I would actually contribute on the day. This worry led to over-experimentation with various types of chamomile tea, and ironically, loss of sleep researching the medical evidence behind them (story and a separate many-word entry for another time), the night before I was supposed to help out at the convention. Fortunately, I was functional enough to help out, and so there I was waltzing through the exhibitor’s queue lane with exhibitor’s name tag and exhibitor’s lanyard and my exhibitor’s shoes (technically whatever shoes I wear are exhibitor’s shoes as I am an exhibitor. What power trip?), ready to set up the Reset Room.
My worries were completely unfounded as there were two veteran Reset Room facilitators around on the day, and so the posters, LED projector, music player and the various distraction toys as well as colouring books were set up speedily. I had the unique opportunity to try out the room, and I have to say that even without already being anxious, the room had an amazing calming effect, better than any chamomile tea brand. We got the welcome signs set up outside the room, and the Reset Room was locked and loaded, ready for action.
My colleague Marcus demonstrates relaxing in the Reset Room
I was tasked with the initial shift for managing the Reset Room from the inside, while the other volunteers either welcomed visitors from outside the room or explored the convention. After the first hour, we had our first few attendees. While my psychiatric training so far has provided me with knowledge on neuro-atypical presentations and anxiety-related disorders, this was my first time experiencing it so acutely and in the moment. As we were advised to keep our psychiatrist hats off and not venture into clinical territory, it was a little awkward at first, but I was thankfully able to fall back on my time working as a restaurant waiter. Welcoming visitors, providing them water, and providing a rough explanation of the available facilities in the room was what I was mainly doing in the first few hours.
While it may seem like basic work, it was a really great feeling to see people’s anxiety and stress slowly melt off as they enjoyed the room, and to see their gratitude when they left the room. As time went on, the basic work became easy and I was able to do this on autopilot. I then switched my focus more towards interacting with the visitors who were alone, or who I felt would enjoy a conversation.
Mental health is everywhere
Previously, I only really focused on the fun and games of my experience at the conventions, rarely thinking about the effort some people with mental health issues would have to exert in order to pursue their passions. Even without any mental health issues, I still find comic conventions extremely daunting and exhausting. It hadn’t dawned on me that for convention-goers with social anxiety, autism or ADHD, these issues that I find a nuisance might be seen as challenging obstacles for them. The large crowds, loud noises and social pressure can be overwhelming for visitors having trouble with unfamiliar locations, excessive stimulation as well as difficulties with social interaction.
Maybe because they were aware we were mental-health-related, or maybe because I just had the ‘bartender at a trendy bar’ vibe, a lot of people were very honest and forthcoming with me about their life experiences and interests. It was a great opportunity to appreciate and learn about the things I have never really thought about before; the effort needed to plan a journey to London while avoiding large crowds; painstakingly creating your own cosplay outfit and psyching yourself up to be approached or photographed; or maybe just building up the courage to get an autograph from a popular vendor you have always admired.
In the true spirit of ‘see one, do one, teach one’, I then ventured onto bigger challenges, such as providing advice on distraction and grounding techniques for acutely anxious and overwhelmed visitors. This was made so much easier with the GTM booklets on the subject of anxiety, as well as on the emptiness of returning to normal life post-convention. As I continued providing the booklets and talking to the visitors about these techniques, I gradually refined my approach and strategies in advising them, which I am sure will benefit me in approaching anxious patients in the future.
We gave out booklets on mental health issues attendees might be concerned about
I then switched shifts to attending the booth outside the room, and this was also interesting in its own unique way. Rather than the more gradual and personal interactions I’d had with visitors in the room, the booth was more of a drive-thru experience: high volume, rapid-fire conversations with many different people. I also realised how important signs are, as there was a huge uptick in people visiting the booth after they saw my sign with fairly scrappy handwriting stating that the booklets were free and that we were available to talk to. The power of the word ‘free’ was probably the main draw. The people who attended the booth were really interesting and our conversations were eclectic, ranging from ‘what’s your favourite anime’, to ‘mental health is not a real thing’, and it is always a great learning experience for me in how to steer conversations in a natural and positive direction to allow everyone to have a good time.
We pose outside the Reset Room, where we welcome attendees
The joy of volunteering
Once my shift was over, I had the opportunity to wander around the convention booths and attend some events. It was also really nice to recognise people who previously had attended the Reset Room and were now having a good time, some even coming up to me and remembering my name. The surprising thing for me was recognising that some of the visitors of the Reset Room were convention staff, and realising not just how beneficial the quiet room was for them, but gaining a greater appreciation of how overwhelming the level of interaction can be in a convention for anyone, including those working there.
Having gotten both verbal and written feedback from visitors, I was very happy to see how much the Reset Room meant for people and how they felt that all events should have a similar space. With that said, we can always endeavour to improve it, and there were many useful suggestions provided by the convention visitors, including having a larger room, keeping it more dimly lit, and improving physical accessibility.
It is really hard for me to convey the various emotions and thoughts I have of my experiences at Comic Con this year, but I think the best way to sum it up is appreciation and admiration. I have a great love of animation and video games, but have always kept it suppressed as I was worried that my interests would be seen as embarrassing in the eyes of some. However, helping out at the convention this year, and truly understanding the lengths people go to in order to express their passion and interests, and be unashamedly themselves, really blew me away and made me realise how narrow-minded I have been; there should never be anything embarrassing about being yourself. Overall, it was an enjoyable and humbling learning experience, and I cannot wait for the next convention, where I will surely be helping out again, but in cosplay!
Written by Jason Ng