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Gamers

Gamers experience "Mafia III," an action-adventure video game developed by Hangar 13, at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in this 2016 file photo. Gamers are opening up about their problems and encouraging others to do the same.

The Madden tournament shooting was a traumatic event for video gamers, casting the specter of violent death over a formerly innocent setting. As they expressed grief and shock online, some headed to a website that seemed custom built to address their emotions: the Twitch channel of Chicago-area gamer SheSnaps.

The raven-haired, trucker-mouthed, relentlessly positive 32-year-old has become what one fan calls "the mama bear" of gaming enthusiasts, leading discussions about mental health with her 55,000 followers, known as the Snap Pack. It's an unusual venue for an often-taboo topic but demand has been keen, leading SheSnaps to expand into podcasts and public speaking.

When the shooting came up during a recent livestream, she empathized with those fearful about their safety, and rued how their shared passion had become entwined with mass murder.

"A lot of us got into gaming because ... it's an escape," she said as anxious comments scrolled past. "It's something that gets us away from the (stuff) we deal with in our daily lives, and it's such an uplifting and friendly community. Seeing something like this hit the community, it feels like it hit all of us."

Video games are often seen as contributors to anxiety, depression and other psychological issues -- the World Health Organization recently classified "gaming disorder" as a mental health condition -- but increasingly, gamers are trying to be part of the solution.

They're opening up about their problems and encouraging others to do the same. They're also trying to serve as examples of good self-care: Popular YouTube gamer Jacksepticeye, for example, recently earned plaudits after announcing he was taking time off to cope with burnout.

Few, though, are doing more than SheSnaps. After starting a channel several years ago around the "Destiny" video game series, she transformed it into a self-help group for people looking for encouragement or just a little kindness.

"It's not just asking Snaps for advice, it's extending it to the full community and having them support you," said Danielle Mathews, a 34-year-old Chicagoan who follows the channel. "The traditional experience of getting a therapist can intimidate people. This just feels like talking to your friends."

'This lie on the internet'

SheSnaps is a full-time streamer, earning a living through subscriptions, advertisements and tips, and she broadcasts several hours a day from a spare room in her northwest suburban home (she prefers to keep its location, like her real name, private due to safety concerns). She spends much of that time playing "Destiny 2," but often just follows the chat on one of her three monitors, talking about whatever comes up.

She once kept her personal life out of her streams, fearing that disclosing painful details would open her up to cyberbullying. But about two years ago, she decided that had to change.

"I started getting more and more messages from people saying stuff like, 'I don't know how you do it every day. I'm miserable. You seem to be so happy. What can I do?' " she recalled.

"It kind of clicked for me that I was contributing to this lie on the internet, that people are just happy and everything is easy. It made me feel bad knowing I was contributing to people feeling more alone versus helping them realize that they weren't."

So in a series of social media posts, she laid out her own story:

She was born to a mother who had drug problems, and when she was just a baby, her grandparents adopted her and her two siblings. She carried feelings of abandonment for years, and suffered through panic attacks and depression.

It got worse when she hit her teen years. Her psychiatric medication didn't work well, and she descended into chronic insomnia and self-harm. When she was 15, she tried to kill herself.

That was her lowest point, but many struggles remained. When she was 22, her beloved older sister died from complications related to pneumonia. She endured a series of abusive relationships, and still grapples with a host of mental and emotional issues.

"I just told them, 'If you want to talk about this, I understand where you're coming from,' " she said. "It got such a massive response that I decided that day to do a mental health awareness stream, where I told everyone my story and gave them the opportunity to talk about their own stories."

Dedicated mental health discussions are now a monthly fixture on her channel -- the next one is scheduled for Sept. 15 -- though the subject often comes up during her everyday streams, too. She doesn't try to act as a therapist, but offers basic guidance as her followers chime in with their own suggestions.

A Scottish viewer who goes by D.C. said the openness on SheSnaps' channel is a welcome alternative to macho gaming cultures.

"It's difficult to talk about the subjects that are talked about on her streams -- things like mental health and emotions," he said. "As a man, you're told you've got to be strong, can't be shown to have any weaknesses. Those become nonissues in Snaps' stream."

Virtual world, real help

Michelle Colder Carras, who researches video games and mental health at Radboud University in the Netherlands, said studies that find gaming to be problematic often fail to take into account the beneficial effects of being part of a community, even if it only exists online.

Those virtual societies, she said, can offer comfort and guidance to people who might not have it in the real world.

"(SheSnaps) gives a really good example of how people connect online through video games," she said. "She does an excellent job of using her experience as a way to destigmatize mental health problems, and that's something that's really needed."

That approach is catching on among others online. Take This, a nonprofit that aims to provide mental health support to gamers, endorses some streamers as "ambassadors" who provide a welcoming environment to people dealing with mental and emotional challenges.

Raffael Boccamazzo, a Seattle-area psychotherapist who serves as the organization's clinical director, said the program is meant to highlight inclusive content creators.

"Ultimately, when someone sees that logo on a stream, they'll know what to expect," he said. "They won't get ridiculed if they're having a bad day."

A Chicago streamer who goes by Coco the Louder has made mental health the primary subject of her broadcasts on the Caffeine platform, offering general advice on topics that range from procrastination to heartache.

Though she's a clinical psychologist, she had doubts about the demand for such a stream. But in a short time, she said, she built a following of more than 1,000 people from all over the world.

"I was astounded by the response," she said. "People are just thirsty for this."

Big return

In July, SheSnaps shared mental health tips at GuardianCon, a gaming convention in Tampa. Organizer Ben Bowman, aka ProfessorBroman, said it was one of the best-reviewed events of the weekend.

"Everyone who attended said it was great," he said. "Mental health isn't something people are talking enough about. When someone decides to make the effort, it always has this really big return."

SheSnaps said she would like to do more public speaking and is developing plans for mental health-enhancing retreats. She also has created two podcasts; one covers subjects ranging from body shaming to video game history, while the other focuses on positive thinking.

The Twitch stream, though, remains the heart of her enterprise. More than 100 people were watching one recent afternoon when a Tribune reporter submitted a question: How had the channel been helpful to them?

The comments came in a surge. Some said SheSnaps helped them learn how to accept a compliment. Others said they've been able to share their frustrations without fear of being ignored. A few said they had been inspired to make major changes to their lives, such as finding a new job or seeking out a therapist.

"Snaps is mom, mom takes care of community, community benefits as a whole, everyone wants to contribute because they all feel they have been helped and then it's a big cycle of helping and happy people," one wrote.

SheSnaps' grandmother, who has become a mini-celebrity among viewers of the stream, said the channel's inspirational direction has made her granddaughter a better and happier person. SheSnaps simply calls the Snap Pack a lifesaver.

"On days I'm having a bad day, I don't hide it anymore," she said. "The responses from my community are like, 'Have you meditated? Had enough water? When's the last time you did something for you?'

"They run through all the things I've been talking about, and it reminds me to stay on track. It's pretty cool. It just comes full circle."

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