Doctor Who Therapy: Can TV's Time Lord Teach Compassion?

Janina Scarlet describes an empirical study using fiction to foster compassion.

Posted Apr 22, 2016

Research studies suggest that elements of popular culture, such as Harry Potter, can be used to help people become more empathic toward others. But can such elements actually help people reduce their psychological suffering? A recent research study by Janina Scarlet and Meghan Gardner suggests that they can. 

Dr. Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full time geek. She uses Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and PTSD at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management and Sharp Memorial Hospital. Dr. Scarlet also teaches at Alliant International University, San Diego. Her book, Superhero Therapy, is expected to be released in 2016 with Little, Brown Book Group.

Meghan Gardner is the director of Wizards and Warriors summer sleep away camp. They wanted to see whether we could use elements from Doctor Who to help children with depression, compassion, and socialization.

Scarlet: It is no secret that many children struggle with depression, either due to being bullied, self-esteem struggles, family problems, trauma history, or due to other issues. This may cause children to withdraw from others, essentially limiting their access to receiving support from others and potentially increasing depression. Recent research studies find that increasing compassion in people with depression or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can greatly reduce these symptoms and may potentially improve socializing with others.

Q. What were you trying to find out?

Scarlet: We specifically wanted to see if we could teach children (ages 9-17) the concept of compassion using Doctor Who, as well as whether this would help children with depression and socializing with others. After receiving a special permission from BBC to use Doctor Who for educational purposes, parents of children who signed up for the camp were contacted and asked for permission to have their children participate in online survey data collection. Sixty-four children ended up participating in the study, filling out surveys to do with their depression rates, as well as a sense of compassion toward others, and socializing with others. These surveys were collected immediately before the children attended camp, immediately after, and then 1 month later.

Q. And what did you discover?

Scarlet: During camp, children spent two weeks with an actor, portraying the Doctor, from Doctor Who, as well as camp counselors, who used the Doctor’s stories to teach children about loss, love, friendship, and compassion. The results of the study revealed that after attending the camp, children were significantly less depressed, more compassionate toward others, and were significantly more social, all of which were also true one month later. One of the children shared, “My friends felt almost as close as family.”

Q. Was this outcome specifically because of the specific example you used?

Scarlet: It is hard to tell whether Doctor Who specifically was the essential element of helping these children. However, the findings of this study do suggest that Doctor Who can be used in psychological interventions to teach children about compassion and can potentially be used to help children overcome depression as well.

If you would like to learn more about Superhero Therapy, please feel free to contact Dr. Janina Scarlet:

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