Recently, Wil Wheaton published a letter on his blog from a reader asking for advice on attending conventions for those with a mental health issue. I thought this was a great way to address issues that prevent many people from attending conventions and taking part in the communities they love. While he asked readers to comment below with their tips and suggestions, it seems like there is a real need to have this information gathered in one place. I’ve compiled some suggestions from his readers - as well as my own experiences and suggestions - to form the Strategy Guide for Mental Health at Conventions! If you have concerns about managing anxiety, depression, ADHD, or other general issues, this is the walk through for you!
You’ll feel more comfortable if you know what to expect. The official website of the convention, Twitter, and blogs are a great way to get more information about the convention you’re attending. If it makes you feel better, take a look at the building layout and escape routes and have some spots in mind to take a quick break or leave if you have to. Also, make sure to follow your favorite authors, artists, and celebrity guests. Sometimes, there are opportunities to meet them outside of the crowded exhibit floors, like at local comic stores and coffee shops in the area. Feel free to use Fanpup as a resource too! Many of our staff members are avid con-goers and can give you a rundown of what to expect!
Be ready for anything, from fire-breathing dragons to ridiculously long lines. Make sure to pack what you will need for the day, including, but not limited to, a phone charger, ipod/music device, personal medications, snacks, and bottled water. Wear comfortable shoes and a sturdy backpack. If you have a mental health concern, packing a lunch is a great way to avoid crowded and expensive food courts. In addition, waits are long, so bringing some personal entertainment such as a book, knitting, or a gameboy can reduce the stress associated with long lines. Noise-cancelling headphones can give you some peace and quiet, even while you’re surrounded by people. Bring your favorite music or check out some soothing white noise websites like Rainy Mood or Coffitivity.
3. Choose Your First Con Wisely
Gain experience points at smaller conventions before battling a big boss con like San Diego! Luckily, due to the growing interest in geek topics, there are conventions of every size. If this is your first time at a convention, pick a smaller one. Starting at San Diego Comic Con or PAX can be overwhelming (and expensive!). Many cities have their own smaller comic conventions now and specialized groups, such as GeekGirlCon in Seattle, are popping up to cater to smaller, more intimate crowds. Ask your local comic book store for one closer to you, or Google your city and your interests to see what is available. When you’ve mastered your first con and leveled up, you won't be able to wait for your next one!
If several days seems overwhelming, buy a one day badge, preferably for an off-day. Typically, if a con runs from a weekday into a weekend, such as Friday-Sunday, Friday will be less busy. Saturday will almost always be the busiest day. For PAX which runs from Friday-Monday, Monday is less busy. To avoid crowds and long lines, choose off-hours. For example, have an early or late lunch, rather than trying to leave the convention at noon with everyone else. In addition, attending later or less popular panels is a good way to go if you are learning how to cope with convention stress or don’t want to deal with a crowd. For larger conventions, arriving early will most likely put you in another line, so arrive later if you want to skip the lines and walk right in.
While exhibit floors are usually loud and packed, there are many places at conventions to take a quick break. Most rooms that advertise themselves as a board game, gameboy, or small console gameplay rooms are typically less crowded and have chairs where you can sit and take a breather. Also, some conventions are starting to implement Quiet Rooms or “Introvert Alleys”, so make sure you check the convention map to see what is available to you!
6. Inquire About a Medical Badge
Most conventions should have medical badges to assist with special accommodations and diagnosed mental illnesses. You can apply for one for yourself as well as a +1 to help you. Benefits vary from convention to convention, but often having a medical badge allows you to avoid lines as long as the panel is not at capacity, as well as sit in the front of the room or in an aisle seat in case you feel the need to leave. Email the convention organizer to see if you are eligible!
7. Take Care of Yourself!
It’s more than ok to take breaks or take the convention a half day at a time. You will enjoy everything so much more if you are not anxious and stressed out. There’s lots to see, but none of it is worth breaking down from exhaustion. Pick one to two main things you want to see a day and keep yourself open to other opportunities that come. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep, too! Remember, conventions are meant to be enjoyable, so do what makes you comfortable.
Never hesitate to ask a volunteer if you have a question or need help. They are there to help you and want you to have a great time (and maybe even come back next year). They’ve seen it all, so feel free to ask volunteers about things like medical badges, cheap places to eat in the area, and kid-friendly rooms and activities. Volunteers can also point you in the direction of a break room or quiet corner (and they might even have a secret spot they would be willing to share).
9. Bring A Friend
It’s dangerous to go alone! Bring a friend who knows about your concerns and is supportive. A friend can save your spot in line if you need a bathroom break or a breather, get help if you need it, and be a great source of support when things are stressful or frustrating. If you have a friend who is a seasoned con-goer, ask them how they manage the anxiety and stress.
10. Leave If You Need To
If you attend a convention and it’s too overwhelming and stressful, it’s okay to leave. It is more important to take care of yourself than to jump into a setting that you are not ready for. It is in no way reflective of your passion for your geek interests and hobbies. Even Batman needs some alone time! You are continuing to build yourself up to something like a convention, and that’s okay! There are also plenty of other opportunities to engage in your chosen community. Check out forum and fan groups online, or look at Meetup.com to see if there is a fan group in your city.
While this strategy guide is a useful walk through for dealing with general aspects of mental health, specific disorders might have different needs. Feel free to ask more specific questions or comment below with what has worked for you at conventions in the past! I'm more than willing to answer questions and provide more detailed advice.