KNAYSI: Informational activism
In order to make a difference, health-related CIOs should provide students with scientific information and think of creative ways to attract students’ attention
Last November, Student Council’s Committee for Safety and Wellness held a forum for all then-active student CIOs with a health- or safety-related mission. Representatives from each organization gave a brief presentation about their purpose and goals followed by a series of small-group discussions. CIOs in attendance included One In Four, the all-male sexual assault peer education group, and Active Minds, the University’s primary organization dedicated to mental health issues. As a moderator for one of these small groups, it struck me that each CIO seemed to have one of two chief complaints: 1) the group had the right facts, data and pamphlets but lacked strategies at encouraging students to pay attention to their information; 2) the CIO had decent student exposure but felt it was not providing students with enough helpful information.
One year later, these general problems still seem to hold true. I suggest that for a health- or safety-related CIO to maximize its effectiveness, it should pair scientifically backed information with activities that directly engage the group with the student population.
Active Minds, which aims to destigmatize mental health issues, serves as an excellent case study for the Safety and Wellness forum’s second point of revelation: CIOs can have large memberships but still be dissatisfied with the information supplied to their members. Since its founding several years ago, Active Minds’ membership and name recognition has grown faster than the average newborn health and safety CIO.
Much of this success is undoubtedly due to its promotion strategy: extensive Facebook campaigns coupled with high-profile events like last semester’s “Bare It on Beta: Post Secret 101,” which allowed students to anonymously share their mental health stories with the public. Another event upperclassmen may remember is the “Send Silence Packing” initiative, which put 1,100 backpacks on the Lawn to represent the 1,100 college students who die from suicide each year.
Though these events successfully promoted one of Active Minds’ primary missions (to increase awareness of mental health issues on Grounds), they were limited in accomplishing a more essential step: offering students information and scientifically tested strategies to proactively address their own mental well-being.
To make the most of such community projects, CIOs must be aggressive about offering students information. For example, although “Send Silence Packing” made the University community more aware that suicide is the second-highest cause of death among college students, the event neglected to offer information on where to seek professional help as well as the social and psychological factors that contribute to suicide. Students could benefit from strategies for managing depression and anxiety in everyday life. A practical solution? Google the information and distribute it through Facebook, on-site fliers, or other creative measures.
In the coming year, Active Minds will implement a more information-based approach; hopefully other health and safety CIOs will follow suit. The old approach is a common one among organizations who believe that self-promotion is the key to positive impact. Undoubtedly, membership and name recognition is an indispensable first step, but the critical factor is what you do with students’ attention once you have it.
If organizations like Active Minds strive for greater proliferation of factual information, groups like One In Four have the opposite problem: lack of student attention. This group crystallizes extensive research into a one-hour program entitled “How to Help a Sexual Assault Survivor: What Men Can Do.” As their leadership noted in the Safety and Wellness forum last year, they are mostly satisfied with their audience (usually sports teams, residence halls, and fraternities) but feel their impact is limited. I suggest One In Four takes a strategy from Active Minds’ playbook: step outside the rigid lecture format and plan events that engage the community in other mediums. No data in their 1-hour presentation — from statistics to strategies during potential sexual assault scenarios — would lose its message when taken to the University sidewalks.
Even with the changes that social media has inspired for CIO activism, face-to-face interaction with the college community remains the most effective method of engagement. Public discussion, game-like activities, demonstrations or informational tables in public spaces around Grounds — these all involve direct, peer-to-peer contact. If a student witnesses (or even better, participates in) an Amphitheater skit demonstrating how to handle a sexual assault scenario, he is certainly more likely to apply the knowledge to real life than if he merely hears it in a monologue. These are the kinds of community-engaging events our CIOs should be brainstorming if they wish to maximize their effect on the University population.
If health- and safety-related student organizations are to make a maximum impact on student well-being, they must invest equally in information and community engagement. And though these problems hold particular relevance in the health arena, they likewise apply to other CIOs who wish to promote various causes — everything from environmental awareness to political clubs. Our University community takes pride in its ability to cultivate student leaders, committing us to unrelenting pursuit of those methods which work.
George Knaysi is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.