Kairi Sariah believes vehemently in the power of listening and talking. An Air Force Intelligence and Special Operations veteran, she began to more deeply understand this power when she started what she calls her “journey from suicide to CEO.”
On December 21, 2020, 10 years after being honorably discharged from the Air Force because she was deemed unfit for duty because of struggles with PTSD, Ms. Sariah put a gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. For some reason, it did not fire.
Somehow, her failed suicide attempt prompted her to put her fears aside and jump right into a long-time dream of becoming a top dog in the gaming and streaming world. She did so by joining Twitch — “a video-streaming platform that offers a fun, social way to watch people play games. Through the Twitch app (and online at Twitch.tv), gamers who broadcast their matches (known as streamers) play their favorite titles while providing running commentary on the action.”
“While I was figuring out the world of streaming, I realized that weirdly, the more I started to be my true self with no act to put on, the more people seemed to flock to my channel and connect with me,” she says. “Over the course of six months, I dove deeply into the world of mental health on a journey to finally learn who I was and to make sense of my mind. I did everything live and on stream for everyone to see — good or bad — to prove that if I could do it, anyone could.”
What is Veterans Gaming & Mental Health Mission?
Data shows that, on average, 28 veterans commit suicide per day. And for every one death in the last 20 years overseas in the Middle East, for every one death in combat, four have died at home from suicide. And the numbers seem to keep going up.
Formally becoming a 501©3 non-profit in August 2021, Ms. Sariah’s organization, Veterans Gaming & Mental Health Mission (VGMH) uses gaming as a bridge to connect people, in particular, veterans who have experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and/or Military Sexual Trauma (MST). VGMH’s main mission is to fight back against the veteran suicide crisis through gaming, camaraderie, and healing.
“It’s all about the camaraderie … the listening, the talking, the sharing. It’s kind of similar to how it used to be in the military where you have your own unit, your own group to draw strength from. And it is in that camaraderie where the healing is found. I mean, all of us would prefer to have the opportunity to listen to someone’s story than to hear about their funeral,” says Ms. Sariah. “Open therapeutic discussion works. It’s like you’re in the woods, it’s pitch-black, there are noises and shadows … and it’s just you, alone, with your one beam of flashlight light bouncing around as you turn this way and that, fight or flight. It’s terrifying. It’s a lot less scary if you’ve got 20 buddies at your side, 20 flashlights that can easily illuminate the forest for what it is, yes, noises and shadows, but once revealed, not so frightening at all.
“So, all this listening, talking, and sharing made possible by gaming and streaming worked for me and there are a lot of people out there struggling in similar ways who can similarly heal. VGMH helps more and more like-minded human beings, regardless of background and story, feel welcomed with arms wide open and judgement cast aside. The whole principle is to simply have empathy and sympathy for the human condition and love people for who they are.”
Sixteen lives saved and counting
On one of Ms. Sariah’s channels on Twitch, she developed a podcast-like segment of her stream called “Mental Health and Chill” nights where she invites a guest to explore the mind together — feelings, thoughts, emotions, what ifs, and whatnots. One night, she did not have a slated guest and someone she never seen before — named Daddyswick — came through the chat. From their short interaction, she felt good about asking him to be the guest on the segment. They talked a lot about their feelings and experiences; Ms. Sariah could tell he was in a lot of pain but after two-plus hours, they wrapped up their discussion in high spirits. A few days later, she received a direct message from Daddyswick, who turned out to be a former Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman. He wrote: “Hey man, I just wanted to let you know that that night when you let me on your stream, I had already decided to kill myself. Saying goodbye on Twitch was the last thing I was going to do. They only reason that I changed my mind was because you said ‘hello’ to me …”
To date, Daddyswick is one of 16 veterans on VGMH that Ms. Sariah knows changed their suicide plans and now, because they are talking, listening, and sharing, are finding meaning in their lives. There may be many more.
Before healing through gaming, Ms. Sariah had sought help for her symptoms of PTSD through individual and group therapy, psychiatrists, psychologists, medications, rehabs, involuntary psychiatric holds … the works. Ultimately, she discovered that “treating the source, not the symptoms” by simply sharing her feelings of fear, guilt, shame, and sadness out loud and “into the ears of others who understood” has made the most significant difference.
“I’m here to tell veterans that they can do it. They can learn how to effectively cope with trauma in healthy outlets and measures. I definitely am no professional regarding psychology. I’m not a doctor and I’m not here to diagnose anyone or purport that I am in any way,” she says. “What I do have, however, is 29 years of experience in hating myself, years of depression, countless traumas starting from early childhood, and the proof that open therapeutic discussion can change everything.”
We’re covering your six
When Ms. Sariah transitioned, it happened organically. While getting VGMH off the ground, she had someone come forward in chat who wrote, “Hi, I just can’t go on like this anymore.” Ms. Sariah asked what was going on and she learned that the person, in his 40s, had spent his life struggling because he thought he should have been assigned female at birth rather than male and believed his family would never understand or accept the change. So, Ms. Sariah decided to dress like a woman while streaming to show this person that presenting as the opposite gender was not the end of the world and really no one would “give a crap.” She was right; no one did. While encouraging this person transition, Ms. Sariah found that being female felt at first “strangely familiar” almost like a déjà vu, so she kept returning to it again and again, finally deciding that her most true and best self was as Kairi Sariah.
“Sure, there were some questions, some curiosity from the community at first after I transitioned, but mostly nobody cared. When you’re in a foxhole — literally or figuratively — and you have somebody covering your six, you have to know that that person is going to cover all 180 degrees of that so that you can have your eyes where you’re focused to keep everybody safe. And that’s when race, religion, gender, everything, all that flies out the window … it doesn’t matter. Are you going to keep me alive or not? … that’s all that matters. And that’s kind of the concept and principle of the VGMH community I try to foster — we have your back, no judgement, no matter what you’re going through. You are not alone.”
Although VGMH — with its text channels like General Chat, Struggling Chat, Mental Health Victories, Find-a-Therapist Tool, Just Hanging Out, Fitness, Daily Motivation — is still relatively new, it’s attracting thousands of followers who listen, talk, share, and learn with and from each other. Ms. Sariah, along with her Board of Trustees and dedicated peer support members, are writing grants for formal funding and expanding the breadth of their services such as with the new VGMH Lifeline Program where a veteran is chosen each month through a lottery or promotion to win a free PC for gaming. It’s all about helping one struggling person at a time in hopes that there may be one, two … then many, many fewer veteran suicides.
“Imagine you just bought your dream home and you’re moving in all your stuff, box by box. You unpack each, but there’s this one little box that contains a single black speck, and we don’t mess with that box, we put that box behind the Christmas stuff in the attic, and try not to think about it. The problem is that that little black speck is mold, and mold grows. If you were to simply clean it with some bleach and water, then it’s gone, you’ve dealt with it, you’re fine, but if you don’t, that speck will grow and spread and make your dream house unlivable. That house is your mind, the mold your trauma. Our community with our openness to talk and listen and help is the bleach we all need to deal — once and for all — with those unwanted, uninvited black specks,” says Ms. Sariah.
“It’s not easy, but it’s possible. It’s possible for all of us.”