Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
“I don’t have content for the next four days. What’s that gonna do to me? What’s that gonna do to my bottom line? When I come back, are people still gonna watch my videos?” Famous YouTuber, Jacques Slade, shares that even vacations aren’t stress-free because these are the recurring thoughts in his head. After the death of Desmond Amofah, a popular YouTuber known as Etika, many YouTubers have opened up about the difficulties of being an online personality and how criticism from viewers can affect one’s mental health. Many creators see therapists due to the isolation and anxiety that comes with being a social media figure. Companies like YouTube, who provide video sharing services to billions of users, as well as the youtube viewers themselves have a moral obligation to not only ensure that the content shared is psychologically appropriate but also to provide psychologically vulnerable people the access to the mental healthcare they need.
For users, social media tends to amplify negative feedback and puts into motion a downward spiral for those in psychological distress. When Amofah shared his mental health struggles through his YouTube videos, his followers on twitter accused him of attention seeking behavior and of faking his mental health crisis. In April 2019, he experienced a full mental breakdown on his youtube channel and viewers left comments like “LMAO” and “He’s just being weak”. The artificial screens of our computers have desensitized us to how our words might affect famous personalities due to the anonymity and distance. The anonymous context of social media sharing enables viewers to vent their anger and negative emotions with impunity and in violation of common decorum and propriety. Twitch is another common platform for live video streaming that enables fans to connect with streamers. Zack Asmongold, a famous Twitch streamer, says that “people think they can troll and abuse online personalities, forgetting they’re not immune to mental health problems.” In his last video, Etika voiced suicidal thoughts, only for the videos to be taken down by YouTube for violating the company’s community guidelines. In Etika’s case, social media and the responses he was getting on his videos worsened his mental distress and indirectly caused his suicide. Etika’s videos and posts were a cry for help so why was there nothing else done to get him the support he needed?
YouTube and other major platforms need to increase their emphasis on psychological safety in their posting guidelines and interactions. Social media is a powerful platform to share, learn, and interact with people from all over the world. However, when it puts people’s mental health in jeopardy it becomes the antithesis of why it was created. After Etika’s death, YouTube Creators, an official YouTube channel, began publishing interviews about prioritizing mental health and how creators should not worry about the stresses associated with constant content creation, especially when their mental health is deteriorating. YouTube, as a company, should show their support by providing services that address the needs of the struggling creators. Under the current security policy YouTube has in place, content that promotes self harm or is intended to shock or disgust users is not allowed. If content violates this policy, YouTube removes it immediately and sends the user an email with a warning. After three strikes, the channel is terminated, and the user is banned from the account. There is also a list of contacts on the website that one could contact for support, including hotlines, websites, and organizations. The question, however, is whether this is enough for those who are really struggling and need easy access to help?
Perhaps YouTube could be more proactive in channeling distressed content creators to counselors and other professionals. While Youtube has a policy to ensure safe content, they should also identify and support vulnerable individuals because they have the information on at risk populations. A YouTube creator, Sam Sheffer, shares that he would “like to see YouTube take a more active and actionable role in helping creators outside the platform, which itself needs a lot of work.” A few suggested ideas by other content creators include offering an insurance plan for full-time creators that includes mental health services or free counseling at YouTube spaces. It’s not feasible for Youtube to reach out to everyone who needs help, but they should have a program in place from the very beginning for those who are exposed to insensitivity and pressure on a daily basis. This program through Youtube could provide basic mental health training for online personalities and triage severe mental health cases to appropriate providers. Even an optional course in self care and emotional regulation accessible to all YouTubers would be a positive start.
In addition, YouTube could adopt a similar initiative that colleges use to address the stigma of mental health. During orientation, many colleges proactively share mental health resources with students, such as where to find support when needed, in order to promote open discussions. If the information is given before the students are enrolled in the college, they will start off the year feeling less isolated and anxious. Some colleges even offer free, readily accessible mental health screenings for students to monitor their mental health throughout the year. If YouTube took a similar, preventative approach in providing mental health training for the online personalities prior to the stresses of their career, they would know where to go for help and feel more comfortable taking time off. YouTube could be a part of the solution the tech community needs to see.
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