Seattle Public Library Helps Teens Explore Mental Health With Virtual Reality

by Agueda Pacheco Flores


Inside a cabin surrounded by greenery, flowers, and evergreens are colored pebbles, pots, labels, a compost machine, and a seed-creator machine. The sound of birds chirping and a little goat can be heard periodically. A few steps away from the cabin is a cave, and on the walls of its entrance is the question “How are you feeling today?” with buttons for emotions, such as happy, angry, hopeful, and stressed.

The virtual reality (VR) game, called “De-Stress Gardening,” is alluring for the same reason many agricultural farming games are popular: They are designed to imitate nature, and as opposed to being competitive, are goal-oriented and have low stakes. But “De-Stress Gardening” is still more unique. It was co-designed by a group of 12 teens from around Seattle (as far south as South Park and as far north as Greenwood) with the help of The Seattle Public Library (SPL) staff and student interns from the University of Washington (UW) ), with the goal of destigmatizing mental health.

“One of the things that, for me, was very transformative was allowing these conversations to happen,” said Juan Rubio, SPL program manager and project lead. “It was like hesitation in the beginning, because you’re so unfamiliar about just mentioning mental health, but in this space, because we were intentional, it became more normal.”

For six months, the group of 12 teens met virtually with Rubio, other SPL staff, and UW interns and researchers. They talked and learned about mental health, workshopped ideas, and brainstormed designs. SPL staff were surprised to see such high retention among the teens (between the ages of 14 and 16), who came back to the remote meetings every other week.

“De-Stress Gardening” is just one of three virtual reality projects funded by a grant offered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2020 to help libraries respond to the pandemic. SPL provided additional funding to launch the mental health-focused initiative alongside the District of Columbia Public Library in Washington, DC, and the Fayette Public Library, Museum & Archives in La Grange, Texas.

With the program now finished, SPL has launched the VRtality.org website, which gives teens a step-by-step road map to replicate the process of designing a mental health-centered VR game. The VR games are also available for download on the website for anyone with a VR headset. The games are compatible with the Oculus Quest 2, which the library offers on loan to community groups.

Agueda Pacheco Flores is a journalist focusing on Latinx culture and Mexican American identity. Originally from Quereétaro, Mexico, Pacheco Flores is inspired by her own bicultural upbringing as an undocumented immigrant and proud Washingtonian.

📸 Featured Image: The Seattle Public Library, along with the District of Columbia Public Library in Washington, DC, and the Fayette Public Library, Museum & Archives in La Grange, Texas, used virtual reality technology as a way to help teens deal with stress during the pandemic. (Photo: courtesy of The Seattle Public Library)

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