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During the pandemic, viewers have turned to content creators for mental health support

(Rachel Tunstall for The Washington Post)

During a recent live stream hosted by Abdallah Elayan, an official Nintendo Brand Ambassador with 884,000 subscribers, a viewer donated $5 along with an accompanying message. “I’m gonna take my life now,” the viewer wrote. Elayan, who makes YouTube videos under the name AbdallahSmash, said he immediately erased the message from the live chat so other viewers wouldn’t see it. On a side monitor, he instructed his team of moderators to check in with the viewer. He kept his stream going. It wasn’t his first time handling this kind of situation.

Elayan trains his moderators to move concerning comments to private chats where they can listen, and most importantly, deliver professional recommendations for therapists or hotlines.

“My directive for moderators is to reach out and see if we can get them to talk on the side,” Elayan said. “We’re not experts. [Moderators are] not therapists, but you have to be able to give resources [viewers] need. My team reports back about all that stuff and it feels good to have that support system.”

With loneliness and anxiety on the rise during the global pandemic, gamers and popular streamers alike rely on “comfort content” more than ever. Fans tune in nightly to watch their favorite content creators; it helps them cope with isolation.

The problem is that while streamers offer companionship and entertainment, they aren’t trained therapists. Games and streamers have helped viewers maintain a sense of normalcy at an uncertain time. But stream chats and Discord servers can take a dark turn when viewers share their intimate mental health struggles. Responding during these sensitive moments is a big responsibility, and mental health experts say professional and medical intervention is often necessary. But while growing their audience is every content creator’s dream, that growth can make it a more difficult task to handle or even notice individual cries for help.

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Elayan said it’s uncommon to have messages about suicidal ideation in his live chat, but it’s not as rare to see teenagers opening up about personal problems in his channel’s private Discord server. When Elayan’s team sees messages about family troubles, even some about abusive situations, his moderators step in. This keeps the chat a fun place to hang out while his team gets support and resources to those who need it privately.

Since lockdown began, Elayan has been busier than ever making videos. Still, he prioritizes his own mental health, including workouts and eating healthy. It enables him to deliver what his audience needs at such a critical time.

“My entire life is about making everyone else happy. That’s the facade you have to put on,” Elayan said. “At the same time, you have to take care of yourself. Waking up, working out, physical health, will absolutely turn into mental health. They’re connected.”

Mental health experts acknowledge that while gaming and live streams offer comfort, it’s only the first step in getting real support if they’re truly struggling. Jason Docton, CEO and founder of Rise Above the Disorder (RAD), said a large portion of the gaming community relies on streamers for support, though they often need better access to mental health services. RAD is an international mental health platform that provides free support to those who need it, and connects people who can pay to therapists.

“When I look at a person reaching out to a content creator, I don’t see them doing something wrong so much as doing the only thing they can do, or [turning to] the only person they can go to,” Docton said. “The unfortunate reality is this person is most likely ill-equipped to be there the way [viewers] need them to be.”

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Docton founded RAD after his own struggles with agoraphobia and depression, and the group trains streamers and moderators to help them handle mental health crises. This helps both the viewer in need and the moderator or creator who feels pressured to respond responsibly.

Other streamers explained that playing games like “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” naturally brings up mental health; “New Horizons,” in particular, has been a popular escapist title during the covid-19 pandemic. Andre Segers, editor in chief of GameXplain, said he streamed “New Horizons” every day for more than two months and built a stronger bond with viewers. In that time, many of GameXplain’s 1.2 million subscribers shared their struggles with feeling isolated.

Although most of the comments weren’t concerning, Segers noticed one fan was posting consistently troubling messages and reached out directly, encouraging them to seek therapy. They followed through. Since that experience, Segers has been rethinking how and if he’ll address mental health during streams. He said opening up lets others know they’re not alone.

“I do have a general sense of worry or concern for [viewers’] well-being, and whether my advice is truly beneficial,” Segers said in an email statement. “I'll try to urge them to see a professional if I feel the situation requires more than I'm equipped to provide.”

Streamers with smaller audiences may experience these messages differently. Nick Neuenfeldt, better known as Beacon of Nick, has 9,500 subscribers, and he connects with many of them individually on YouTube and in Discord. For now, he said it’s relatively easy to respond to every message; He has already recommended that some viewers seek professional therapy. As his audience grows, though, he’ll have to address this problem differently. For now, he feels the responsibility to create consistent content and balance being supportive without seeming like an expert.

“If they don’t have a place to go, is that going to make their day worse?” Neuenfeldt said. “I always try to tread carefully. I never want anyone to think I’m trained to help anyone else. I’m not licensed.”

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Michelle Ruth, a licensed counselor in London, said she understands why a viewer might feel they have something in common with a creator they love. But instead of creators trying to act as stand-in therapists, she said moderators and streamers should continue to send viewers to professional resources. And while some commenters might be joking or looking for attention, it’s not a moderator’s job to tease that out, Ruth said, only to provide links to therapists or hotline numbers and treat everyone as if they’re being serious.

“It’s a huge pressure for [creators],” Ruth said. “[But] the consequences if they get it wrong are massive.”

It can be expensive or difficult to get professional help though, which is exactly why Docton said RAD has doubled its fundraising efforts and hopes to host a charity stream every day in May. He said for RAD, it’s a simple equation: people need help, and the organization provides it. While quarantine has been hard, support from the gaming community could be the first step toward finding help.

“Everybody was struggling,” Docton said. “[But] there’s nothing that can stop you from getting the help you deserve now.”

Abby Lee Hood is a freelance writer covering labor, games and the South. Their work has recently appeared in the New York Times, IGN and Nintendo Life. Follow them on Twitter @abbyleehood.

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