For many streamers, authenticity isn’t just a preference; it’s a must. Many viewers want influencers they can relate to on a personal level. This connection can mean the difference between a single view and a dedicated channel subscription. While it can forge a bond between a streamer and their audience, however, that balance can also tip in the other direction, opening both parties up to a dangerously intimate relationship that takes a toll.
That’s where Take This wants to come in. The nonprofit’s name is a nod to an iconic phrase from The Legend of Zelda, and it was founded in 2013 to educate members of the games industry and its community about better practices around mental health. Now, it will be targeting Twitch and YouTube personalities with its new “ambassadors” program. The program, which will roll out in time for PAX West late this summer, aims to teach influencers how best to help viewers who may struggle with their own mental health. (Take This co-founder Russ Pitts was previously employed at The Verge’s sister site Polygon.)
“We’re not making the streamers into therapists or anything like that,” says executive director Kate Edwards. It’s an important distinction to make for anyone who might see these influencers as acting in a mental health professional capacity. “We’re just trying to coach them so they know how to handle the topic.”
By engaging with streamers directly, Edwards explains, Take This seeks to train these influential personalities “in a more formal fashion.” The program will offer ambassadors a rubric created by a clinical psychologist with guidelines on how to speak to viewers on the subject. The goal, essentially, is to teach ambassadors how to speak about the topic appropriately, without triggering people or leading them to self-diagnoses. “I guess you could put it as, it’s just helping guide how you talk about [mental health], and [with] what level of delicacy,” she says.
A games veteran of 20 years, Edwards previously served as the executive director of the International Game Developers Association. On the topic of awareness, she cites a 2016 study conducted by the IGDA, in which developers were asked to self-report whether or not they dealt with mental health issues on a regular basis; 10 percent of respondents said they did.
But unlike physical ailments, Edwards says, mental health is hardly given the same level of sympathy or attention. “If you went into work on Monday with a broken leg ... everyone fawns over you: ‘Oh, what happened? Are you okay? Can I bring you anything?’” she says. “But if you walk into work and say, ‘I’m depressed, and I don’t feel like working today,’ people don’t know what to say. They’re just like, ‘Oh, well, maybe if you work hard, you’ll forget about it.’” Conversations about mental health, she says, tend to rise and fall with trending topics. “We only really talk about [mental health] if a famous celebrity commits suicide or something. It’s all that churn, and then [the conversation] goes away.”
The Take This ambassador program won’t just focus on audiences that want to talk about mental health; it’ll also invest in the well-being of the streamers themselves. Many streamers they’ve spoken with want to get critical feedback on their work, Edwards says, but part of that means ingesting abusive comments along with helpful notes. “Going through feedback is like walking through a minefield,” she says. “If you are constantly assaulted online, and you start deadening yourself to that kind of feedback, or you don’t have a good way to cope with it, then you’re at risk of losing your empathy. You become stoic about it because you have to be — as a survival mechanism.”
The online influencer path to stardom is still largely uncharted territory, but as with any growing industry, education and guidelines will be essential as the space professionalizes and solidifies. Edwards points to professions that deal with live work, like radio or news, as possible avenues for reference. “Pretty much everybody who’s [an influencer] is a pioneer to some degree,” Edwards says. “Certainly some have been doing it for a couple years longer than others, but it is such a new form of expression.”