Twitch Streamers Are Burning Out from Acting as Shrinks to Their Fans

Streamers focusing on mental health often find themselves in unenviable positions

Emily Reynolds
Aug 14, 2019 · 5 min read
Image: Chris Stokel-Walker

For several years, James was one of Twitch’s most prominent mental health streamers. (James prefers to keep his surname private.) Under his somewhat absurd online alias, General_Mittenz, a talking cat, he’d discuss his issues with anxiety and depression, give tips on how best to deal with panic attacks and talk about the stigma he faced; he even told viewers about his father’s suicide several years prior.

The point, James says, was to create a safe community where people could come and talk about their problems, whether that was something as serious as a mental health diagnosis or as standard as a bad day at work, college or school. He’d found his own ways to cope with his diagnosis of PTSD, he says, and wanted to pass that knowledge on to others.

But last year, James stopped using mental health as a platform. “Every week I would have one to three people in my DMs telling me they were going to kill themselves,” he says. He’d signpost them to professionals, usually a “toll free, international number” so that viewers from across the world could get help. But often they’d return, unable to get help elsewhere.

Already struggling with his own issues, the frequency of the messages started to grind him down: “I felt like I was a shred of a person,” he says. So he stopped the mental health streams altogether.

Even without an explicit mental health element to their content, streaming can have a significant impact on someone’s wellbeing. Worries about constantly performing to fans can put pressure on streamers; on Twitch, streams that last for hours or go on late into the night can also disrupt someone’s sleep schedule and in turn their mental health.

High-profile cases, including that of Desmond “Etika” Amofah, a 29-year-old Twitch streamer and YouTuber who took his own life earlier this year, have brought even more attention to the issue. In April, Twitch addressed these difficulties itself, releasing a blog post designed to help streamers with their mental health, encouraging them to use coping techniques and set working hours to maintain a sense of equilibrium.

The dynamics of an online relationship can also lead to undue strain being placed on streamers or other influencers, Leslie Rasmussen, Associate Professor at Xavier University, explains. Her work has looked at the relationship between YouTubers and their fans; she characterises the relationship between streamer and fan as a “parasocial bond”.

“A parasocial bond is a pseudo-relationship between a viewer and social media celebrity,” she explains. “The speaker will never know as much about the viewer as the viewer knows about them, so the viewer ends up feeling invested in their relationship despite not really knowing the other person. Their accessibility absolutely encourages this bonding and relationship formation”.

When asked about James’ experience, Rasmussen points to her YouTube research: “There’s a lot of folks [on YouTube] talking about anxiety and depression too”. In many cases, this relationship can be rewarding: Rasmussen compares it to “two long-time friends discussing issues with anxiety and asking for advice”.

But because the viewer knows so much more about the streamer than the other way round, the relationship is one-sided; streamers often have a strong bond with their audience in general, but it would be impossible to replicate this bond with every individual viewer. And when streamers are discussing mental health, this one-sidedness can be particularly prominent — and can lead to people like James experiencing a torrent of questions and pleas for help.

“Every week I would have one to three people in my DMs telling me they were going to kill themselves”

James isn’t the only prominent streamer compelled to deal with the mental health of his viewers, either. In 2018, a stream moderator and healthcare professional known only as ‘Badxan’ shared her experiences with suicidal viewers on Reddit.

“Last night, a viewer made some statements in chat that he was having a rough day,” and that he might seriously harm himself, she wrote. After speaking to the viewer privately and realising he was seriously suicidal, she used the ‘Report: Self Harm’ function — and his account was instantly banned.

Understandably, this response was heavily criticised. For one, it made it seem like engaging in self harm or even asking for help was something to be punished; it also removed the ability for those who needed help to receive it.

“This is bigger than trolls,” Badxan concluded. “We’re talking about the biggest killers of youth today. Self harm can be an indicator of suicide, and when somebody states they are thinking about suicide it is important to help them. Not silence them.”

Since Badxan’s post, Twitch has made significant changes to its process when someone is reported for self harm. Working with Take This, an organisation seeking to increase mental health support in the games industry, the platform completely rewrote its mental health support information; it also no longer bans users who are reported for self harm.

Take This has also started to seed trained ambassadors throughout the games industry, executive director Eve Crevoshay explains. This includes developing guidelines on how to talk about mental health, as well as crucial training in interacting with people expressing mental health challenges of all types, including how to set healthy and safe boundaries. This training is also available for community moderators because “so many of these interactions happen in chat,” Crevoshay says.

Crucially, Take This ambassadors don’t offer any mental health services, nor any direct advice. Crevoshay repeatedly refers to the importance of boundaries: “that’s what our ambassador training is all about,” she says.

“The important thing is to understand that you can validate someone’s experience, and offer them resources, but that’s all,” she continues. “After that, only that person can choose to help themselves — which may include them seeking out professional help”.

“Our ambassadors’ role is to ensure their viewers a find a stream which is actively free of stigma regarding mental health challenges,” she concludes. “That’s really their job — to make sure mental health challenges are accepted and not shamed.”

Twitch wouldn’t comment on the strain some streamers are under when dealing with viewer mental health, though it did say that protecting streamer mental health was a “priority” for the company.

“We’ve partnered with organisations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness to develop mental health tips for content creators, provide ongoing support and resources on our site and at TwitchCon, and encourage our communities to support each other,” it said in a statement. It also pointed towards a list of worldwide and country-specific suicide and crisis hotlines that streamers can point viewers towards; Take This has a similar list of resources.

None of this is to say that streamers should stop talking about their mental health. James’ stream alone reached thousands of viewers who felt able to open up to him, and Take This have had significant success with its ambassador programme.

“There’s still a significant stigma around mental health across the culture, and so talking about mental health challenges as a normal part of life is incredibly empowering for everyone,” Crevoshay says.

“In every part of my work, the first reaction I get to talking openly about mental health is relief — and it’s no different for streamers.”

FFWD

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