Deans discuss students' social media comments

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The Dean’s Advisory Committee met last week to discuss how the school should respond to anonymous social media comments by students, especially those regarding mental health.

New Senior Director of Student Wellness Services Sara Semal, Dean of Students Jorge Gonzalez and Dean of Students Barbara Avery asked the students on the committee if it would be helpful to comment on such posts with reminders of services available through the school. The response from students was negative.

“We asked students how they thought we should best address [the comments], and what was working and what wasn’t,” Semal said. “They said, ‘If you go on Yik Yak it will feel like the administration is watching us,’ and I said I totally feel that. I totally do not want to do that.”

Semal stressed the college’s respect for students’ privacy and self-expression. Her priority is making sure students know what services are available to them, but she does not want to intrude on the space that anonymous social media forums such as Yik Yak and Oxy Confessions provide.

“I don’t want to go on there, be like, ‘Hey, here if you need me,’ and have somebody read that as, ‘Oh my god, the administration is on our site, they’re big brother-ing us and I don’t want to be on here anymore,'”Semal said. “You lose this venue for self expression.”

Some students use these forums as a means to vent internal struggles they would not have shared otherwise. The administration recognizes and appreciates these benefits and has no intention to interfere, according to Dean of Students Erica O’Neal Howard.

“We periodically post information about campus resources, including our confidential hotline, but these sites are external to the college and thus outside of the college’s jurisdiction,” Howard said.

The administrators involved believe the most helpful response to these posts comes from students. Frequently, students will comment offering their own support as well as information about resources available through the school. On a recent Oxy Confessions post, one student commented, “If you want to talk message [sic] me, I know how you feel. It’ll get better eventually.” Such responses are common to mental health-related confessions. In fact, eight of the last 10 confessions about mental health were responded to with messages of support from students.

“The students and I and Avery are just making sure the information is out there and letting the students be their own support system on Yik Yak and Facebook,” Semale said. “Which is awesome, because they’re doing a great job of it. I would encourage student organizations like Student Wellness Advisory Council (SWAC) and Active Minds to respond when they’re on there, because they’re the ones who probably know the resources the best.”

Both SWAC and Active Minds find the issue important, but difficult to tackle. SWAC co-chair Seth Cohen (senior) initially thought Emmons should comment on posts with referrals for appointments and explanations of their services. In the end, however, he decided it was Emmons that should be receiving advice from students online, not the other way around.

“I certainly believe that if someone struggling with a mental health problem offers a suggestion on one of these anonymous sites on say, how Emmons can improve their services, then Emmons should work with SWAC, and the Oxy students, in order to deem whether the suggestion would in fact be beneficial,” Cohen said.

Members of Active Minds seemed timid about pursing online interventions.

“As an E-board, we have mixed opinions about what the proper solution to mental health-related posts is,” Active Minds Vice President Taylor Taverna (junior) said. “That being said, we don’t know that it’s necessarily the administration’s job to get involved.”

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