I was not the biggest kid, but I was always strong and athletic growing up. Even after highschool, I stayed active working manual labor and hitting the gym. Then my life took a sudden turn when I got injured at work. A 15-feet fall landed me in physical therapy, surgery, and disability nightmare that lasted almost 4 years.
Mentally, I struggled. I lost all my athleticism and mobility overnight… something I defined myself by.
I had to keep occupied. I spent those years studying human biology, pain-management, and physical-therapy to be able to understand and improve upon my rehab process. But you can only study so much before you get burned out, and I needed an outlet.
I still could use my hands… and I put some crafting techniques back into use making terrain and crafting/painting miniatures for friends. This helped me during quiet nights when depression was sinking in.
I had some friends invite me to game with them. We had played D&D long before my injuries, so they knew I was going through a rough time.
D&D simply put, is interactive story-telling with a group of friends; think improv theater just with dice. We each made characters and played through several fantasy and sci-fi games together. This helped pass the time and allowed me to use my brain for more than studying and basically live vicariously through the actions of an avatar.
Characters are built using descriptive statistics... depending on which system you use, some can meticulously describe a characters abilities. Eventually as I slowly regained some of my physical strength, I thought of something… what if I could use some of the stat systems to measure my progress?
Using several systems, I mapped out myself as a "character" from the basic stats down to the penalties and injury de-buffs due to my injuries. As my strength improved, the character sheet improved… as mobility got better, penalties disappeared… as pain decreased, the character's health improved.
Eventually, the character was "healed"... it just took 3+ years. I still use this model as a way to personally measure my progress in life and as an athlete, constantly trying to level-up my stats.
Looking back on the experiences, at first it was about escapism. The game allowed me to not focus so much on the trauma I was enduring... eventually I used it to compartmentalize and deal with my trauma.
There is a place for role-playing in mental health. Several organizations have experimented with it for helping cope with substance abuse and mental trauma for decades… using something like a high-fantasy system such as D&D as a vehicle for delivery is a logical extension for many cases, especially if it helps people work through their trauma in a healthy, safe manner.