Media and Mental Health Communication During COVID
Health communication researcher Sebastian Scherr studies how people engage with social media – specifically mental health messaging – and how the media is structured to respond to users. At a time when many students are reporting feeling anxious and overwhelmed, Scherr said it is important to raise awareness of the mental health resources available to Texas A&M students.
By Hannah Brennan
Studies show people – particularly students – are stressed and feel isolated during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. While isolation is a problem, Sebastian Scherr, Ph.D. and assistant professor of health communication, encouraged students to take advantage of resources provided by the university. Scherr’s research examines the link between mental health and media use, including suicidality and suicide prevention.
In addition to the mental health resources Texas A&M provides, it is important to connect students feeling overwhelmed with health messages about where to find help coping with those feelings, said Scherr.
“I think the fact that A&M is putting a lot of effort into these mental health services is great, but people being aware of them being present is equally important,” said Scherr. “It’s good for everyone to know there’s somebody who is helping you who has an open ear if you feel stressed or overwhelmed.”
Feeling stressed and overwhelmed can make it hard to engage with someone who is experiencing anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions. This likely leads to scrolling passively through social media to get the feeling of catching up with people, even if the person isn’t actually interested, explained Scherr.
“Media is a low-level interest activity,” said Scherr. “If your batteries are really low because of your mental health, and if there is anything you can do that is really low energy, low capacity activity media might be one of the first things to do.”
Certain mental health conditions can make the person focus on the negatives, Scherr added, instead of the positives. Some people get a type of “tunnel vision” on negativity when using social media by comparing their lives to those shown online, said Scherr.
Algorithms are a type of structural factor in media which provide content that is relevant to the user and will keep them on the platform longer, said Scherr.
“For example, on Instagram people use #cat when they upload pictures about self-harm scars because it looks like your cat scratched you,” said Scherr. “Instagram reacted last year and banned pictures of self-harm images on their platform.”
Algorithms also dictate what content users see, allowing companies to have a “gatekeeper” role, Scherr added.
“It is relevant to understand the structural factors of media in order to be able to really get the full potential of suicide prevention,” said Scherr. “If we don’t know what the platform is doing, how can I play my prevention messages?”
Connecting Students to Resources
Texas A&M mental health resources include phone and online scheduling for workshops and telehealth services for emotional support, group counseling and individual appointments.
Students concerned about a peer who may need emotional support can submit an online report to request a welfare check through Student Assistance Services, according to the Offices of the Dean of Student Life.
Students, faculty and staff can learn to identify struggling students and peers by registering for QPR Gatekeeper training. The final two-hour fall training via Zoom is Nov. 5 and prepares students, faculty and staff to recognize warning signs, know how to speak to someone at risk for suicide, and where to refer individuals for help, according to the Office of the Dean of Student Life.
Texas A&M offers telehealth individual and group appointments along with group workshops by phone or Zoom. Students can register through the CAPS portal for a one-hour appointment or set up a phone consultation, according to the Counseling and Psychological Services website.
Group counseling appointments address relationships, stress management, coping with grief, and identity. Led by two trained counselors, small groups of 6-10 students sign up to meet weekly for 90-minute sessions.
Group workshops are another option and are conducted through 90-minute sessions over the course of 2 to 3 weeks. Students can self-enroll on the CAPS portal, according to the Counseling and Psychological Services. For convenience, workshops have been converted to short videos for students and cover topics including anxiety, depression, relationships, self-worth and COVID-19 related struggles.
For a comprehensive list of services available through Counseling & Psychological Services at Texas A&M, visit https://caps.tamu.edu/.
Additional mental health resources provided by Texas A&M are available at https://sga.tamu.edu/mental-health/.