April 16, 2020
Johns Hopkins Faculty and Stack Up Launch Research Project to Study Online Crisis Intervention Program
Faculty from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the nonprofit veteran-serving organization Stack Up have launched an official collaboration to research and help improve the effectiveness of a first-of-its-kind online crisis intervention service, The Stack Up Overwatch Program. Michelle Colder Carras, PhD, and Alain Labrique, PhD ’07, MHS ’99, both faculty in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School, will lead the project. Stack Up's Mat Bergendahl and Dave Crouse will serve as community partner leads.
The Stack Up Overwatch Program offers crisis support by trained volunteers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, through its Discord server. Discord, an online social media and communication platform, offers groups the chance to talk or text in real time. The platform also allows members to socialize in an online gaming community by participating in text or voice chatrooms or joining livestreams. While the organization is focused on veterans, anyone can join and utilize services. The evaluation project will provide crucial insights about this innovative service that will guide quality improvement, inform mental health and suicide prevention research, and promote translation to other populations and settings.
"Online communities are so important, especially right now, when people are socially distancing and sheltering in place due to COVID-19," said Colder Carras. "As an online gaming community made up of over a thousand veterans, military service members and their citizen supporters, Stack Up has become a trusted community partner."
Colder Carras has been a regular guest on Stack Up's Thursday night Twitch stream, "Quaranstream," to discuss COVID-19, misinformation, and mental health. She also conducts biweekly live chats on the Stack Up Discord server to answer questions about COVID-19 and show community members how to find reliable information during the current "infodemic"—a term used for an overwhelming amount of information that makes it difficult for people to find accurate and useful guidance when needed.
Digital health is a rapidly evolving field. Previous research by Colder Carras conducted with the Veterans Health Administration showed that playing video games, especially with others, could play an important role in mental health recovery. Focusing on crisis services for online communities, however, is a new area of research.
"Thankfully, video games are now being recognized by leading public health organizations such as the WHO for their ability to bring people together and connect them socially. These kinds of social connections are vital right now as people manage the mental health effects of extended isolation, and Stack Up's online community is a great resource," said Colder Carras.
The focus on video games and gaming communities as a potential benefit is relatively new for public health, with joint ventures between video game companies and public health organization forming, such as the one with WHO to support a new social media campaign, #PlayApartTogether, to promote online connection during the pandemic.