Reaching Students Online
By Rebecca A. Clay
How do you reach 15,000 students at a commuter school in a rural area? According to Jameson K. Hirsch, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City, you go where the students are—online.
The SAMHSA-funded campus suicide prevention project that Dr. Hirsch directs supplements traditional approaches like a course module and training for health service trainees and resident assistants in dorms with an ever-growing Internet presence. The ETSU PEAKS (Prevention through Education, Awareness, and Knowledge of Suicide) initiative features a main website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and much more. “I really see it as the future when it comes to trying to get social messaging across,” said Dr. Hirsch. “We’re just trying to be on people’s radar on a daily basis.”
Each of the project’s online activities reinforces the others. In addition to the project’s main website,
there’s an increasingly popular Facebook page. The page, which has already attracted 200 “friends” and 500 “likers” from among ETSU’s students, staff, and local community, features news about the project’s activities, links to articles on health and mental health from such sources as the American Psychological Association and Psychology Today. There’s even an embedded video promoting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Soon the site will feature podcasts and video vignettes about the counseling center.
“Not everyone will see a flyer or a sign, but everyone’s on Facebook,” said Dr. Hirsch. “We’re trying to make our Facebook site one-stop shopping.”
The project has begun using Facebook advertising to target its messages to particular users. During exam time, for instance, an ad targeting students might ask if they’re feeling stressed out, ask if they want to talk to someone, and link them to the counseling center. An ad targeting their friends and relatives might ask if they know a student who’s in trouble and direct them to the ETSU PEAKS main Facebook page.
That strategy is really paying off, said Dr. Hirsch. At a cost of about $500, the ads have been shown 2 million times and have generated 600 click-throughs. “That’s less than a dollar a click—less than I pay for a pen or water bottle to give away at an event,” said Dr. Hirsch. “In terms of bang for your buck, it’s a pretty innovative way to reach out to people in the community.”
There’s also a Twitter feed, at www.twitter.com/etsupeaks, which features a couple of posts a day aimed at students, friends, and relatives who have signed up for the updates. There’s a page on the social bookmarking site Delicious, www.delicious.com/etsupeaks, where the project lists links to favorite web resources. There’s even a site on the photo-sharing site Flickr, at www.flickr.com/photos/etsupeaks, where the project showcases pictures from such activities and events as residence hall outreach and Mental Health Awareness Day.
These techniques are a great way to get basic information out there, said Dr. Hirsch, noting that his baseline survey revealed that many students didn’t know where the student counseling center was or weren’t even aware such a resource was available. “We’re trying to get them information in a way that’s a little flashier than just a sign somewhere or a line in the student handbook,” he said.
Plus, Dr. Hirsch added, the online approach allows students to access the information they need in private. That’s especially important in rural areas, he said, where a culture of “rugged individualism” contributes to stigma about seeking help with mental health issues.
“Nobody wants to be seen going to the counseling center,” said Dr. Hirsch. “This way, they don’t have to tell anybody.”