NHS England opens first gaming disorder clinic as lobbyists call for games industry to ‘take more responsibility’

The NHS in the UK has opened the country’s first specialist clinic to treat children and young people believed to have gaming disorder.

From today, GPs across England can refer people aged 13-25 years old thought to be addicted to gaming to the National Centre for Behavioural Addictions in London, which will include dedicated clinical psychologists, mental health nurses, therapists and psychiatrists for children and young people fighting addiction. The service has been established by the Central and North West London mental health trust and be located alongside the National Problem Gambling Clinic.

“Health needs are constantly changing, which is why the NHS must never stand still. This new service is a response to an emerging problem, part of the increasing pressures that children and young people are exposed to these days,” Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, told The Guardian.

“Gaming disorder is a mental health condition which can have a hugely debilitating effect on people’s lives, both for patients and their families who can be left feeling utterly helpless in the wake of their loved one’s addiction,” added Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the NHS’s new Centre for Internet and Gaming Disorder and the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ spokesperson on behavioural addictions.

“Gaming disorder is not a mental illness to be taken lightly. We are talking about instances where someone may spend up to 12 hours a day playing computer games and can end up becoming socially isolated and lose their job as a result.”

The World Health Organization last year recognised “gaming disorder” as a medical condition for the first time. It included it in its latest revised edition of the International Classification of Diseases, which tells doctors worldwide what conditions the WHO has accepted to be a disease.

Further to a vote in May, the 194 members of the World Health Organization (WHO) agreed to recognise “gaming disorder” as an illness at the 72nd World Health Assembly. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) – which opposed the addition – and the WHO met in December to discuss the decision but despite opposition from the ESA and other trade organisations, however, the WHO said the decision to include gaming disorder was based on available evidence and reflected the consensus of experts. Consequently, ICD-11 has now been adopted by the World Health Assembly and will come into effect on January 1st, 2022.

The disorder is described as: a pattern of “persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour, which may be online or offline, manifested by: 1) impaired control over gaming (e.g., onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context); 2) increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities; and 3) continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences”.

It also added that if the symptoms last for at least 12 months and a player’s behaviour “is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning”, they could be diagnosed with the disorder.

“The inclusion of gaming disorder in ICD-11 follows the development of treatment programmes for people with health conditions identical to those characteristic of gaming disorder in many parts of the world, and will result in the increased attention of health professionals to the risks of development of this disorder and, accordingly, to relevant prevention and treatment measures,” WHO said.

“As technology becomes more accessible and more advanced, it’s unsurprising that more and more young people are potentially being negatively affected by excessive screen time to the point where it affects their daily lives,” said professional lead for children and young people at the Royal College of Nursing, Fiona Smith. “The damage of addiction of any kind goes beyond the child or young person, causing distress to parents, families and friends.”

Both Smith and Stevens call for gaming companies and tech firms to contribute funding towards the costs of maintaining NHS mental health treatment for those who become addicted.

“Whilst the NHS has a duty of care and is adapting to these modern challenges, it and taxpayers can’t foot the bill alone,” Smith said. “Online gaming firms and global social media firms who make millions of pounds of profit must take more responsibility by keeping their platforms safe, and introduce safeguards to reduce the burden on the health service.”

Following a nine-month investigation, the UK parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee recommended last month that the British government should regulate loot boxes under gambling law, accusing the games industry of a “lack of honesty and transparency”, giving the government grounds to “question what these companies have to hide”. 

When called to give evidence about loot boxes and gaming disorder, the committee stated many of the industry representatives declined to respond to some of the Select committee’s questions, including how long players play games for, citing they couldn’t respond without compromising commercially sensitive data. The committee called this a “wilfully obtuse” tactic to avoid scrutiny.

Ukie says: “there is strong disagreement among experts on the inclusion of video gaming in the ICD-11 list, and the issue has been heavily debated for some time. 

“The argument is that the WHO’s action has not been guided by an appropriate level of robust research, data and analysis. Numerous internationally-renowned mental health experts, social scientists and academics from research centres and universities, including Oxford University, Johns Hopkins University, Stockholm University, and the University of Sydney, have published peer reviewed journal articles calling into question the WHO’s plan to create a new gaming disorder at this stage.”

About Vikki Blake

It took 15 years of civil service monotony for Vikki to crack and switch to writing about games. She has since become an experienced reporter and critic working with a number of specialist and mainstream outlets in both the UK and beyond, including Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, IGN, MTV, and Variety.

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