Will smashing plates and TVs at Saint John’s first ‘rage room’ help your mental health?

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Destroying a computer with a blunt object is a lot of work.

The aluminum bat connects with the steel case with a soft, metallic crunch. The first swing barely dents the tower. It takes a good half-dozen more hard strikes to pop the side panel off, sending the fan, power cables, and plastic bits spinning out onto the floor.

For many people, it might feel odd — even slightly wrong — to unleash their inner Hulk on defenseless office gear.

But Julie Hebert, who just opened Broken Pieces Rage Room on Rothesay Avenue in Saint John, says smashing small appliances, glassware, and personal possessions helps some people deal with stress.

Surveillance style video of a person in a full black jumpsuit and orange helmet hitting a computer with a baseball bat.
Full safety gear and a briefing on the rules are required before you unleash your inner Hulk at Broken Pieces. Each room is decorated with graffiti by local artist Hope Barry. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Hebert bases her view on her own experience with trauma. She worked in mental health and addictions until 2013, when a workplace assault caused her mental health to spiral.

“I was very angry,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that it would actually happen to me.”

It took years of medication, counseling and electroconvulsive therapy in hospital, but she says she’s now in a better place. She wants to provide an outlet for other people struggling with anger and grief.

A smashed computer laying in a pile of broken glass and plastic bits.
Some of the carnage left behind after a rage session, which can be booked in increments of 15 to 30 minutes. (Julia Wright/CBC)

‘Divorce rage,’ office parties

Hebert struck on the idea of ​​a rage room — a worldwide phenomenon that exists from Japan and Serbia to Toronto and Texas — when he came across a TikTok of people smashing things “after having a really bad day.”

“I was let go from my job the year before, and my best friend was diagnosed with Stage 4 lymphoma,” she said. She thought, “‘You know what? Why can’t we do this? Why can’t we bring this to Saint John?'”

That “a-ha” moment led to the creation of Broken Pieces, a Rothesay Avenue warehouse space divided into four small rooms filled with donated, smashable goods from china plates and popcorn machines, to coffee makers and printers.

WATCH | We tried out Saint John’s first rage room:

Worldwide ‘rage room’ phenomenon comes to Saint John

Microwaves, computers and glassware are just some of the smashable items at a new entertainment facility.

Hebert’s “Break up/Divorce Rage” package includes more than 30 objects, plus a box of approved stuff brought in by the guest. The “Office Party” package includes 20 small items, a computer, printer, and a bonus windshield.

In addition to head-to-toe safety gear, guests can access an arsenal of “weapons” — a crowbar, golf club, baseball bat, and sledgehammer — and a speaker for those who like their rage with musical accompaniment.

After wreaking havoc for 15 to 30 minutes, guests leave the mess behind to be sorted for recycling. Hopefully, Hebert said, they leave behind whatever’s bothering them.

Drugs, alcohol, and hitting the walls or doors with weapons à la Jack Nicholson in The Shining are prohibited, as are children under 10.

A bunch of defunct microwaves stacked on a shelf.
Stacks of stuff waiting to be smashed at Broken Pieces. (Julia Wright/CBC)

‘Nothing is without risk’

Mental health is a “main focus” of her family business, said Hebert. There’s a memorial wall for visitors to record the names of loved ones who have died, and suicide prevention and counseling literature are on display.

One of the brochures is for Port City Counseling Services, owned by registered psychotherapist Nigel Bone. He helped Hebert apply for funding from Envision Saint John.

Pieces of broken glass on a table in front of a graffiti-covered wall.
Throwing glassware and china plates on the walls is just one option for rage room visitors. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Bone said an opportunity to smash things with no consequences could be a “safe, structured place” to “take your anger there, and then leave it there, and go back into life.”

He compared it to people blowing off steam at a shooting range or an ax-throwing bar.

Smashing things “can be an outlet, or it could be some kind of symptom management,” he said.

“I don’t think that anything is 100 per cent without risk, especially when it comes to triggering human emotions. At the same time, I do think that the pros outweigh the cons.”

A rack of brochures for mental health support services.
Hebert says some people will visit the rage room to help them release the trauma. A rack of brochures for mental health support services is displayed in the lobby. (Julia Wright/CBC)

The problem with venting

Laura Cavanagh, a professor of psychology and behavioral sciences at Seneca College in Toronto, disagreed.

“The research does not back it up,” she said.

“That’s probably why primal scream therapy is not really practiced today by most licensed clinicians,” she said.

“There was a lot of research done on it after these movements gained so much popularity in the ’70s. The reality is that research has shown that venting anger is not particularly cathartic, and it actually functions more as a rehearsal of anger than as a release of anger.”

A man with long hair and a beard stands on a beach.
Registered psychotherapist Nigel Bone says structured outlets for frustration, like boxing with a punching bag, can be helpful for some people. Other experts say indulging the impulse to ‘get it out’ in violent or destructive ways that can actually amplify feelings of anger. (Submitted by Nigel Bone)

Cavanagh said addressing, and working through, anger is emotionally healthier than indulging it, which he said can amplify rather than release feelings of rage.

“One of the things to remember is that anger is often a secondary emotion that hides an emotion that is more vulnerable, like fear or grief,” she said.

“Part of the problem with the idea of ​​’venting’ it, or ‘getting it out’ is that it prevents us from going a little bit deeper and figuring out what is fueling this anger. Where is it? Where is it coming from? What am I afraid of? What am I sad about? What am I envious about? What am I grieving?”

A young woman in a black shirt on a red background.
Psychology professor Laura Cavanagh takes issue with the idea that ‘letting it out’ in a rage room helps mental health. She says displaying counseling brochures is fine, but she’s ‘not sure what percentage of people would follow up from that.’ (Submitted by Laura Cavanagh)

Even a violent sport like boxing is not just about “randomly trying to destroy a bag. It’s learning these skills and techniques and being able to strategize, master them, and control them,” Cavanagh said.

“So that’s quite a different thing than just coming in and smashing a bunch of things.”

Bone, too, cautioned that a rage room is no substitute for traditional mental health treatment.

“At the end of the day, it’s not going to be the cure,” he said, adding that medication and therapy to address any larger emotional issues are key to feeling better.

Your mileage may vary

Hebert said he’s well aware the idea isn’t going to be a hit with everyone.

“Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion,” she said. “If you actually think that [a rage room] is a negative situation, then you’ve clearly never had that much mental health to deal with.”

She sees supervised raging as an alternative for people who might otherwise act out in ways they’ll regret in real life.

“You get in too much trouble for breaking other people’s stuff or breaking your own stuff — and you have to buy it again,” Hebert said.

As a large sign across the reception desk at Broken Pieces puts it, it “beats going to jail!”

A blank memorial wall with a lit candle waiting to be filled in with names and dates.
Hebert says she hopes visitors will use the memorial wall to write the names and dates of loved ones who have died. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Cavanagh has a different take. She said the reason for using a rage room matters.

There’s nothing “inherently wrong with a rage room if you want to go because it sounds like fun,” she said. “But if this is a strategy to protect your mental health, that’s where I would have concerns.”

In other words, while the therapeutic benefits of rage rooms are debatable — it might still be interesting to see what happens when you hit a microwave with a sledgehammer.

Two women pose at the front desk of a business which bears a decal reading 'Beats going to jail!'
Hebert and her daughter, Meaya Hebert, pose in front of the front desk bearing the slogan ‘Beats going to jail!’ (Julia Wright/CBC)