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Using Social Media to Support Student Mental Health

Instagram isn’t just a channel for influencers—it also can help business schools identify and assist students most at risk.

Photo: iStock/filipfoto

In the lead-up to a fall 2020 semester full of chaos and uncertainty, we at the University of Iowa in Iowa City could be sure of one thing: Winter was coming. When the weather was warm, it was relatively safe to hold face-to-face study sessions and social meetups outdoors during the pandemic. But by mid-October, chilly temperatures were driving students back into their residence halls, increasing the risk of exposure to the virus.

The normal stress of midterms loomed, and darkness was descending on campus. It was going to be far more difficult to support the mental well-being of our students at the Tippie College of Business.

Before the pandemic, the Tippie College already had employed a team of student interns and devoted a significant portion of a full-time employee’s time to support a robust and interactive social media content strategy. We were using LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok as spaces to dialogue with our various constituents and audiences.

It made sense, then, for us to turn to our social media platforms during the fall and winter months as a way to connect with students and support their mental health. Our preferred communication channel was unorthodox: Instagram.

Awareness Is Not Enough

In January 2020, Tippie College had hired Kristin Wurster, a co-author of this article, as an embedded psychologist to support student mental health. In addition, the college has invested in programming and personnel to support student mental health, under the leadership of Ken Brown, also a co-author here and associate dean for the undergraduate program.

In the weeks leading up to our campus shutdown in March 2020, our social media team already had been meeting regularly with Wurster to discuss how our college’s social media channels could best support the mental health of our audiences. We had begun to use our social media platforms to inform students about addiction awareness, suicide prevention, and the availability of Wurster’s services.

However, posting information about these services, by itself, did not drive students to use them. In fact, in the first two weeks of the fall semester, only a few students sought out our mental health resources.

Many students will be reluctant to acknowledge that they are struggling, even when such acknowledgement is the first critical step to seeking help.

We thought of two reasons this might be happening. First, many of our students are highly driven, which means they also are highly guarded when it comes to their personal reputations. While we have made great strides in our campus culture to normalize the act of seeking mental health support, our students still can feel as if these resources are for others, not themselves.

Second, our students are constantly managing how others perceive them, a skill that can lead them to believe their own hype. Many will be reluctant to acknowledge that they are struggling, even when such acknowledgement is the first critical step to seeking help.

We thought that students might be more willing to seek out help if we gave them a semi-private outlet to share their struggles. Providing such an outlet also would allow us to reinforce our collective concern for their mental health.

Instagram Opens the Door

We knew that midterms would be a critical moment to remind students of Wurster’s services. As cold weather reduced safe outdoor activities and stress levels mounted, the college’s social media team posted a check-in message on its Instagram story.

“We know this semester is way outside the norm,” the story read. Under this statement, we included a slide poll with the question, “How is your mental health?” Viewers could rate their mental health on a scale of zero to 100. If viewers needed extra support, a second Instagram story offered contact information for both Wurster and the University Counseling Service (UCS).

Our communication might have ended there. However, we took an additional step of using a feature on Instagram that allows account owners to see each individual’s responses—something the college had used for previous posts. Instagram stories are set to disappear after 24 hours, but within that timeframe more than 100 people had ranked their mental health at a zero. That represented about 7 percent of the people who viewed the story. We then sent a direct message to every single one of them that included this basic script:

    Hi, [NAME]. We noticed that you replied on our story that your mental health is taking a hit right now. It can feel overwhelming to reach out for assistance. Can we help you make an appointment with a counselor for a check-in?

This step allowed us to reach out to at-risk students and connect them with the campus resources that suited their individual situations and needs. We found that most of those we direct messaged felt seen and cared for during a stressful time. For instance, one student, who already had made an appointment with the UCS, told us, “It’s awesome that you’re reaching out to people, though. I appreciate it.”

Two social media interns worked in shifts to manage the initial outreach and most follow-up messages. These messages were often as simple as, “It’s great you’re reaching out to your support network! That is a great step.” The student body is generally aware that student interns are involved in managing the college’s Instagram account, and our interns know to hold students’ identities in confidence.

Respondents with thornier problems were put in touch with Rebekah Tilley—the college’s director of communications and social media manager, as well as the third co-author of this article. She connected them with college leaders who could help resolve problems in a private digital space before those problems became acute.

We wanted to normalize the act of seeking help while communicating that the college cared about students’ welfare.

Some issues students brought to her were logistical. For instance, could our embedded psychologist provide counseling to an out-of-state student who was taking coursework fully online? Others were pedagogical, involving disagreements about how individual professors were managing hybrid classes. In those cases, we asked students for permission to have an administrator to reach out to them directly to negotiate resolutions.

It’s typical for more students to seek mental health services during this time in the semester, but we wanted to normalize the act of seeking help while communicating that the college cared about students’ welfare. In the month after the Instagram story was posted, twice as many faculty members contacted Wurster to ask for resources and to connect students to her services than in the previous month.

Wurster hypothesizes the Instagram check-in might have encouraged students to be more open with faculty about their challenges—especially those who otherwise might not have sought out mental health services.

What We Have Learned

We have now learned a great deal about using social media to help students through rough times. If other educators want to use social media in a similar way, we suggest taking the following these steps:

Invest in social media. One reason this mental health check-in worked is that the Tippie College of Business had maintained an active Instagram channel for years. During the pandemic, Instagram has become even more important, because it has allowed us to communicate privately with students via direct one-on-one messages. It also has allowed students to connect publicly with college leadership and peers.

For example, our associate dean for the undergraduate program holds Q&As with students on the platform. Our sophomore business students also use Instagram to answer questions from incoming freshmen. We can hold such one-to-many conversations on the public-facing part of our Instagram story; we then can conduct one-to-one interactions in direct messages.

Prepare for all scenarios. Staff who reply to students must be aware of all available resources and trained to respond to a variety of situations—including students who may be suicidal. Schools should ensure that the account is monitored closely for the 36 to 48 hours during the campaign, so that staff can immediately address any acute mental health concerns and escalate them to counselors or administrators as needed.

Establish that social media staff can only point students to appropriate resources and offer simple encouragement, as students might expect from a friend they bump into in the hallway.

Do not act like a crisis line. It is important that students do not expect your college’s Instagram account to function as a crisis line that offers professional counseling services. Clearly establish that social media staff can only point students to appropriate resources and offer simple encouragement, as students might expect from a friend they bump into in the hallway.

Separate your therapist from your college. One way to establish the informal role of your school’s Instagram account is to ask social media staff to use their real names to sign their initial replies to students. This clarifies that they are not licensed mental health professionals. It also helps avoid expectations of informed consent and confidentiality that are integral to clinical services.

Consider informed consent. Just in case, we also recommend consulting with a mental health professional in your institution to determine if it is advisable that an informed consent statement be included on this type of mental health check-in. It is also worth considering having only staff members, and not student interns, reaching out to students via direct message. And because many business students are concerned about personal reputation management, we recommend that those responding via direct message sign their names as well, so that students know with whom they are communicating.

Communicating Care, Staying Connected

It’s true that the pandemic has severely impacted our ability to connect with students face-to-face, but it also has shown us the importance of supporting our students’ mental health. As Melvin Hines and Marissa Rodriguez of the education technology firm Upswing recently recommended, schools need to adopt strategies to help students feel connected and supported even while they learn remotely.

If your business school’s Instagram channel is inactive, or if you only post on Instagram irregularly and infrequently, we recommend investing time and effort into making it a more robust and interactive platform. It can be an invaluable tool not only for communicating that your school cares about students’ well-being—but also for keeping students connected and successful during difficult times.

Rebekah Tilley is the director of communications at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Kristin WursterKristin Wurster is the embedded psychologist at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Kenneth G. BrownKenneth G. Brown is the associate dean for the undergraduate program and Ralph L. Sheets Professor of Management at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.