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From the Hulk to Pokemon, ‘geek therapy’ is helping students unlock emotional superpowers

Hulk smashes, yes, but he also feels lousy afterward, when he reverts to being mild-mannered Bruce Banner and surveys the wreckage.

Therapist Jason Frei explores that lesson to great effect with children at Northampton Area Middle School who struggle with anger and tend to lash out instead of finding healthier ways to cope. And because the central character is the Hulk — a “giant, green rage monster,” to quote another character from the Marvel Comics universe — the moral of the story settles deep in the adolescent mind.

This approach — harnessing comic books, video games, anime and other pop-culture resources to reach kids who battle anger, anxiety and the other villains in the coming-of-age years — is called “geek therapy,” and it’s an increasingly popular tool among practitioners who work with young people.

The term sounds somewhat dismissive — “nerd alert!” — but it’s the proper name for a technique sanctioned by the American Psychological Association. Frei brought it to the middle school through YESS!, a school-based therapy program launched last year by his employer, St. Luke’s University Health Network.

YESS! stands for “Your Emotional Strength Supported!” and is now in six Lehigh Valley districts, with more expected to join. Not all therapists in the program use geek therapy, but it’s a natural fit in the K-12 environment and Frei — who is close to obtaining professional certification as a geek therapist after practicing the technique informally for years — hopes it will spread.

“It works for about 75% of kids,” he said.

That’s roughly the percentage of students who find pop culture appealing. For the rest, Frei can pivot to other interests, such as sports. Lessons in growth and coping can be teased out of almost anything, after all.

But at this moment in history, we are all living in Marvel’s universe — and Harry Potter’s, and Luke Skywalker’s, and Pokemon’s. So Frei meets the students where they spend so much of their time, and the results are encouraging at a time when the mere act of going to school is haunted by the specter of violence.

The problems confronting the children could be anything “from the death of a family member to anxiety to depression,” said Frei, who has even counseled a student with dissociative identity disorder — a phenomenon arising from deep trauma that used to be called split personality.

‘If Tony Stark can do this, so can I’

In an office cluttered with toys, Frei — clad in a black shirt with a brightly colored breast pocket covered in cartoon characters — doesn’t have to reach far before he finds an object useful to therapy.

Mace Windu’s light saber, for instance. In the geek world, Samuel L. Jackson is probably best known for playing Nick Fury, the eye-patch sporting spymaster behind the “Avengers.” Long before that, though, he portrayed Jedi Mace Windu in the “Star Wars” prequels, who carried a light saber with a unique purple hue.

At the time, Jackson was one of the few people of color in a franchise not especially known for diversity, at least among human characters in the original trilogy.

Northampton, however, has a diverse student body, so Frei uses Windu and other characters — including the biracial Spider-Man of “Into the Spiderverse” — to show students of color that they are part of the geek universe too.

Students with disabilities, meanwhile, can learn about James Earl Jones, the actor who overcame a stutter and provides the unforgettable voice of Darth Vader; about Lou Ferrigno, the deaf bodybuilder who played the Hulk on television; about Professor X, leader of the X-Men, who uses a wheelchair.

As the students reflect on the characters, Frei teases out the ethical and moral underpinnings of their stories. Darth Vader was seduced by the dark side before redeeming himself. Batman, the Dark Knight, fights crime as he fights his inner demons. Bruce Banner is locked in a struggle with a literal manifestation of rage.

One of the most important lessons in these stories is perseverance. To some extent, all the characters overcome external challenges, but, more importantly, inner ones. Over the course of the “Avengers” movie saga, for example, Tony Stark — Iron Man — grows from an egotistical playboy into a hero who sacrifices his own life for everyone else’s sake.

Dr. Anthony Bean, a psychologist in Forth Worth, Texas, who developed and refined the geek therapy approach — “I’m obviously a geek nerd for life” he said — singled out Stark’s storyline as one of the best to teach children how to differentiate the positive “true self” from the negative “ego self.”

“If Tony Stark can do this, so can I,” Bean said, summing up the epiphany children have after pondering Iron Man’s narrative arc.

While the tools and characters may be new, Bean said the root of the therapy isn’t new. Comics, movies and video games are contemporary versions of the folk tales and myths traditionally used to teach children how to make sense of the world.

Bean began researching the possibilities of pop culture-based therapy in 2008 and pioneered the use of video games and role-playing games in the field.

“Games all have rules and boundaries,” he said, “and you can extrapolate those into real life.”

Bean said Frei is one of about 100 therapists in the process of gaining certification through his institute, Geek Therapeutics, adding that the popularity of the technique has “blown up” in recent years.

“We have a lot of school counselors in the program and it’s completely changed the way kids have interacted with the school and the counselor,” he said.

‘If you were a superhero … ‘

Among the tools Bean developed is a deck of cards with questions designed to spark conversations. Bean solicited questions from geek therapy practitioners and selected the best, among them a submission from Frei:

“Lots of superheroes wear armor to protect themselves from attacks. If you were a superhero, what would your armor protect you from?”

The answers vary widely, Frei said. Anti-bullying armor. Anti-sadness armor. Anti-anger armor. Frei’s job is to forge the armor by teaching techniques to deflect the bullying and ease the sadness and anger.

One patient told him that he was playing a tabletop game with his family when his sister began teasing him and calling him a loser.

Normally the boy would have flipped the board over and stormed off. This time, however, he imagined his sister’s cruel words bouncing harmlessly off his armor.

“He told his sister her words had no effect on him,” Frei said. “Then he won the game.”

The cards, available through Amazon for about $20, aren’t just for therapists. Parents can use them to encourage conversations with their children.

Frei, who lives in Allentown with his wife, Lori, and has a collection of almost 2,000 comics to bolster his geek credentials, said meeting kids on their own terms is the most effective way to reach them as they struggle to define themselves in life’s most tumultuous age.

“And we’re not just here for the kids,” he said. “We can provide help for anyone employed by the district, from the janitor to the superintendent.”

Morning Call reporter Daniel Patrick Sheehan can be reached at 610-820-6598 or dsheehan@mcall.com

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