At a time when face-to-face counseling is all but impossible, Stony Brook University students have been receiving crucial outreach services through virtual Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO) programs.
The CPO strives to create an environment that empowers students’ well-being through progressive solutions. It achieves this by fostering self-determination and a culture of care through prevention, early intervention and outreach services centering on public health concerns.
In late March, CPO launched its Self Care Anywhere website, which offers fun, informative resources on how to stay healthy and connected while managing the stressors of the coronavirus pandemic through mindful positive action.
CPO also collaborates with Campus Recreation and Wellness to advertise free virtual fitness classes for all Stony Brook students.
“In addition to information about Campus Rec and Wellness, the Self Care Anywhere website has embedded YouTube videos to some of our favorite fitness videos,” said CPO Assistant Director Kerri Mahoney. “We really wanted to make sure the videos reflected our diverse student body.”
CPO uses Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facebook Live and Instagram Live to host its virtual programs and connect with students. It hosts 15 to 20 virtual workshops/training/programs per week. All CPO programs can be found on the CPO website and at SB Engaged.
Mahoney and Assistant Director Christine Szaraz alternate in hosting weekly Healing Arts at Home events, which involve livestreaming/posting videos and information about various activities on Facebook on Wednesdays at 1 pm.
The videos are designed to introduce students to a craft or activity that can be made with common household items, while introducing stress management and self-care tips. In one video, viewers learn to make a lava lamp using a glass or plastic jar or bottle, vegetable oil, Alka Seltzer or vinegar, and baking soda and food coloring.
“In terms of other lessons, we have just started the weekly series, and Kerri Mahoney will be doing vision boards to keep students focused on their goals and reinforce that this situation, though stressful, isn’t permanent,” said CPO Director Smita Majumdar Das.
“When we inquired about the data analytics of our Self Care Anywhere website, we were informed that within the first week alone we had 201 unique visits to our site lasting four minutes or more,” she said. “We were thrilled to know that students were visiting our site and utilizing the online resources — this is remarkable in the world of the Internet and limited attention spans.”
Then there are the staples of CPO bystander intervention training programs. These include Red Watch Band, which offers training to prevent toxic drinking deaths, and Question, Persuade and Refer, which provides training on how to recognize and respond to a suicidal crisis.
CPO shifted Red Watch Band and Question, Persuade and Refer to virtual training, said Mahoney. It is currently working on adapting Green Dot — a strategy for preventing forms of power-based personal violence, such as rape and sexual assault, relationship violence, harassment and stalking — or a similar violence prevention bystander program onto a virtual platform.
“We didn’t fully anticipate that popularity would translate into the demand we are seeing for the virtual bystander intervention training,” Szaraz said. “But this may illustrate that students are looking for something meaningful to do with their time even while away from campus.”
To be sure, CPO’s trainings cover areas that are “affect-heavy,” such as suicide prevention.
“We have discussed in-depth ways to make sure we can see all participants by decreasing the number allowed, creating a safe space for all to engage comfortably, and by assuring there are points of contact with all by conducting polls and moving into more discussion rather than slides, which do not allow the presenter to be fully seen,” said CPO Associate Director Danielle Merolla. “We also worked on making sure the content meets the challenges of the current virtual world and concerns that may arise within this platform.”
In addressing mental health outreach and suicide prevention, CPO recently launched Let’s Talk. Available via Google Hangouts, Let’s Talk is an informal, confidential way for students to talk virtually with a counselor.
“Let’s Talk has helped several students to connect informally and virtually with a counselor to problem solve and get connected with other resources as needed during these uncertain times,” Merolla said.
She noted that when students returned from spring break and all classes went online, the need for CPO’s virtual programs intensified.
“There was a clear shift from supporting some of the more collective experiences of uncertainty, grief and loss with programs intended to connect and distract to supporting students in figuring out how to manage their day-to-day academic life (e.g., virtual classes, exams, physical health and well-being) — while managing expectations, supporting self-compassion and acknowledging how different this time is,” Merolla said.
CPO also reached beyond Stony Brook and into the community by offering two virtual Red Watch Band trainings to local high schools. The first training took place on April 2 and included eight students from Northport High School.
“This training fit nicely for both high school and college students, and many high schools actually implement it already,” said Mahoney.
CPO also developed a robust calendar of virtual programming and resources. It created an infrastructure — such as registration links and survey forms — to support those offerings.
“During the first two weeks of the campus closing, we were concerned with addressing the needs of students who were still on campus and would not be able to leave for various reasons,” Szaraz said. “As classes resumed, we have been able to connect with more students and identify a range of reactions and needs among them, from boredom and wanting more social engagement to more significant emotional impacts, relationships and a desire to explore options for resources and support. One area we are putting a lot of emphasis on is how all this is affecting our interpersonal relationships.”
Workshops like Long-Distance Relationships and Setting Boundaries in Small Spaces, which are intended to help students cope with their individual circumstances, fit the bill.
“For some students who may be really lonely and isolated, that may involve overcoming obstacles to reaching out and connecting with peers, while other students may be struggling with a living situation that involves too many people living in close quarters,” said Szaraz. “In either situation, we want to be able to help the student recognize some of the dynamics at play, emphasize that it’s okay to be having a hard time with the situation, and discuss some approaches for making a difference.”
CPO also is focusing on how social distancing is affecting romantic relationships through Healthy Relationships Through Social Distancing.
“Discussions focus on how to manage the distance, effective communication and ways to bond via virtual means to continue strengthening one’s relationship,” said CPO Survivor Advocate and Prevention Specialist Samantha August.
Another area CPO is emphasizing in all its programs, even if it is not a formal part of a scheduled topic, is helping students articulate what they are experiencing and gaining insight into how this break from normal campus life is affecting their functionality on different levels, including academics.
“Students are feeling the disruption and loss, and we are acknowledging and validating their feelings as well as helping them identify strategies for managing those impacts and taking care of themselves,” said Szaraz.
CPO also has several virtual chat and support sessions available for student groups, such as resident assistants, international students and others.
Student response to the enhanced resources has been positive.
“They seem to be responding to all of our programs, but especially to the Red Watch Band and Question, Persuade and Refer online bystander trainings, as well as the virtual Let’s Talk sessions, and the self-care resources and activities we are posting through our website and social media,” said Majumdar Das.
“Let’s Talk was being used before students returned to virtual classes; the demand will only rise once students become more aware of these virtual offerings that allow them to connect with a professional for a brief conversation and get resources and tips to deal with their present situation.”
Although CPO’s focus has been on providing online resources to students, mentors’ health and emotional well-being are equally important.
“All our CPO interns have a meeting space for them to connect with each other. This is intended to check in and provide a space to support them,” Merolla said.
To that end, CPO set up virtual social hours to connect with interns and volunteers. For example, on Fridays all the Substance Abuse Prevention and Health Education interns meet on Google Hangouts and catch up on life, classes and how they are handling various situations. Professional staff usually join for the first half of the meeting, then allow time for the students to speak among themselves.
“Creating this space seems to create a sense of normalcy, as these students were spending close to 10 hours per week with each other before social isolation,” said Mahoney.
In addition, a virtual space was created to support CHILL Peer Educators’ health and well-being so they can be a model for their peers, family and friends.
“We learn and support each other and pay attention to the shifts day to day and in ourselves during this unfamiliar time,” Merolla said. “This is separate from our regular class meetings, where we address things directly related to the internship.”
Pre-Nursing student Emily Brinn ’22, a Substance Abuse Prevention intern, is one of several students who enjoyed the Friday virtual social hours.
It was really nice having the online Zoom meeting for Friday social hour. Besides seeing all of the faces that I miss seeing every week, it was helpful learning how everyone is keeping sane during this crazy time,” she said.
— Glenn Jochum