2020 has upended our lives as we face the stress, anxieties and hardships that come with living through a pandemic. We transitioned to working from home, lost social support systems due to physical distancing and made more and more use of Zoom for everything from meetings to happy hours.
Students on college campuses, if they were able to return to them, found themselves in the middle of this uncharted territory as they navigated health and safety regulations that prevented them from living the “normal” college experience, and added pandemic stress to the usual anxieties of class projects, midterms, finals and grades.
Social media managers in higher ed had a front row view to their student’s feelings, often getting caught in the crossfire as the students let off steam with quick, angry tweets or memes critiquing their institutions. It left many of us sitting back and brainstorming new ways to connect with students and help allay their fears and worries.
Rebekah Tilley, Director of Communications at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa, found a way to do so.
In October, she and her team used Instagram Stories to do a mental health check-in with their students asking simply, “How is your mental health?” Included with the question was a slider that allowed students to choose from 0 to 100. The goal wasn’t clicks or engagement—it was helping their students.
In that 24-hour period, Rebekah’s team responded to more than 100 students who rated their mental health poorly by offering to help make an appointment with a counselor, sharing mental health resources available on campus, and listening to their students’ stories.
Here are five key takeaways from that project as shared on the December 14 #eduWebinar:
- Make it your own
The #HESM community is a great source of inspiration, whether it’s BYU’s Instagram stories addressing sexual assault resources on campus (which was one inspiration for Rebekah’s project) or Dartmouth’s COVID-related informational stories (which I screen shot frequently and which were the subject of April 2020’s #eduWebinar on Community Building in a Crisis), but we can’t just drag and drop other people’s projects onto our own social media accounts.Every one of our audiences is different and we must plan for their unique response to topics and execution.For Iowa, a focus on mental health has been baked into their strategy for years and Tippie College of Business even has a mental health psychologist on staff for enrolled business students. This mental health check-in aligned with their audience who already trust the accounts as engaged and invested in their mental health.
- Plan accordingly
As Rebekah said, “The best social media happens at the right time.” When deciding when to launch this project, the Iowa team made a calculated decision based on what they knew of normal semesters and their added insights of COVID stressors.October generally brings anxiety and worry for students as they face midterms with an increased workload due to studying and large projects being due. Midterms week also coincides with the usual turn to winter weather in Iowa as the days get cooler and nights get longer. While this can add to feelings of lethargy, during COVID it also means less time and activities spent safely outdoors with friends.The timing seemed ripe to check in with students and provide some much needed support during a long semester.
- Invest in social
This is a two-pronged takeaway.Firstly, successful projects like these don’t happen overnight and they don’t happen in a vacuum. Iowa has a strong collaborative atmosphere with a focus on social media. They have spent years building trust amongst their audience on these platforms across the institution. As Rebekah said, “Day in, day out, week by week we do the work—why is it important? It’s for moments like this when you can step into a place and positively impact people’s lives.”Secondly, Rebekah has five student interns in her office that she uses as the “first and best” focus groups for ideas for social campaigns and projects. One of the interns actually came up with the mental health check-in and saw the whole project come to life!
Don’t worry if you’re a team of one, though. While interns are a great sounding board for ideas, you also know your audience through and through and are spending the time becoming that trusted place for your students.
- Prepare for all scenarios
Instagram Stories are ephemeral, but require hands on attention if you’re choosing to do an interactive story like this. Iowa sent more than 100 direct messages to students (and even one alumnus) who indicated that their mental health was at a zero on the slider. That takes time, energy and knowing that you have the right people in the room or on speed dial for any scenario.A student intern offered mental health resources during the initial outreach. While most responses were positive, a staff member stepped in for the responses that required supervision or immediate attention.Rebekah has suicide prevention training and knew who to turn to if anyone appeared to be in immediate crisis. She also sought answers to some more in-depth questions about mental health services for students who weren’t on campus for the semester and dialogued with people who had concerns about the semester more broadly.
- Manage expectations
A project like this won’t succeed in a silo with an institutional account doing all of the heavy lifting. Your counseling center and campus psychologists should be looped in before launching to make sure they know you may be calling on them throughout the day with immediate concerns, and that you will be sending a lot of students their way to hopefully improve their mental health.The mental health professionals on your own campus can also help you navigate whether you need language regarding Informed Consent on a project like this.Similarly, while this project was a mental health check-in, Rebekah said to make it very clear that the Instagram account is not and should not be a crisis line. Most often, the social media managers responding to students are not trained to be crisis managers nor is it their job to be. What we CAN do is be a conduit to help connect students with resources that are already in place.
Liz Harter is the Social Media Manager at the University of Notre Dame.