Cloud9 Enlists Twitch Moderators in Fight Against Mental Health Stigma

Photo courtesy of Riot Games

Mental health is the topic du jour in esports. Pro players from across the gaming world have spoken up about their struggles with mental health ranging from anxiety to depression, and their teams have installed therapists, performance coaches and fitness trainers to support those players. As one of the premier teams in esports, Cloud9 has taken many of those steps. Now it's looking to take one further by extending the focus from its players to its fans. The plan? To train moderators on Cloud9's official Twitch channels to combat stigmatizing language in the chat, and to promote honest discussions about mental health.

Cloud9 has partnered with health care company Kaiser Permanente to put together the initiative. Dr. Don Mordecai, Kaiser Permanente's National Leader for Mental Health and Wellness, describes the current mental health climate in the United States as discouraging.

"Less than half of people who have a mental health condition, and that certainly includes children (and) adolescents, get any treatment at all. And way less than half get an evidence-based, outcomes-based kind of treatment," Dr. Mordecai said. 

Mordecai attributes part of that lack of treatment to a social pressure not to speak frankly about mental health. Americans are conditioned to keep quiet about their struggles with anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges to avoid coming off as weak, attention-starved or just generally outside the norm. We all want to fit in, and being honest about mental health can be a one-way ticket out of normality.

This stigma is deeply ingrained in our society, infecting even the language we use.

"Every time you call somebody a psycho or something, you're basically stigmatizing people who actually struggle with psychosis," Dr. Mordecai says. That perpetuates a negative image of psychosis in society, thereby making people less likely to seek help when they need it.

That stigma has only grown more damaging as Americans have been forced to stay isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit focusing on national health issues and unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente, found that 53% of adults in the U.S. reported a negative impact on their mental health caused by anxiety around the coronavirus — a significant increase over the 32% reported in March. That anxiety has resulted in difficulty sleeping or eating, increased alcohol and substance use, and worsening chronic conditions. The CDC itself found more than two in five U.S. residents reported struggling with mental health issues associated with COVID-19, ranging from anxiety to suicidal thoughts.

Cloud9 and Kaiser Permanente began work on their partnership before COVID-19 became the defining public health crisis of 2020, but Cloud9 CEO Jack Etienne sees the timing as somewhat serendipitous.

"The timing couldn't be better to be able to offer support to the Cloud9 fans that are going to get access to our players (via Twitch)," he said. "They can see that these issues are being discussed."

Cloud9 athletes serve as role models for their viewers, Etienne said. When those viewers see the players they love and admire speaking frankly about their own mental health struggles, they feel more comfortable speaking up themselves.

"I think that because they're on the stage they're on, with a lot of people watching them, if the players can properly express what they're going through, as well as talk about what tools they're using to help them cope with the stresses of work, it goes a long way to remove the stigma of dealing with mental health challenges,” Etienne said.

Of course, if players speak openly about their struggles on Twitch, viewers will have the chance to chime in via the live chat. Twitch chat is hardly a monolith, but streamers and viewers can attest to its tendency toward the toxic. Chatters are as likely to criticize their favorite streamer as to build them up, and there's too much on the line when discussing mental health to let that kind of negativity reign.

Enter Cloud9's moderator system. These volunteers will be trained to recognize words and phrases that contribute to the negative stigma around mental health. Then, using the robust set of tools provided by Twitch, they can take punitive or restorative action on those responsible. Minor offenses can be met with a timeout, which moderators can then explain to the user in private. More serious breaches can merit bans of varying length, including permanent exile from the channel.

Any attempt to regulate Twitch chat will inevitably be met with resistance. Etienne is clear-eyed about the potential for chatters to rankle at the new rules. But he sees light at the end of the tunnel.

"There's always going to be that very vocal minority who's going to be really angry about it, but I think we're going to be able to filter out those people eventually," he said.

"Just because people may not like it doesn't mean it's not worth doing."