In the college editions, this is a big month for grappling with some of the central dilemmas and paradoxes of health messaging. We’re looking at ways to remove the gender-based barriers affecting male sexual assault survivors. We’re encouraging students to get the flu shot. We’re aiming to distance student smokers from nicotine. And we’re helping students budget their spending. (For sure, no one can accuse us of a lack of ambition.) Here’s a quick intro to the November 2015 college editions of Student Health 101. As always, we love your questions. If I don’t answer them, please post below.

When your male friend is sexually assaulted

How can we support survivors of sexual assault? In this #GetEmpowered feature, we show that male survivors also experience gender-based barriers to reporting and coping with sexual coercion and violence. The piece emphasize the importance of these and other approaches:

  • Not “othering” survivors or treating them differently
  • Listening and allowing survivors to describe and define their experience
  • Being thoughtful about our own language and assumptions
  • Giving choices and resisting the urge to tell survivors what to do

Evan Walker-Wells, the author of the piece, was one of Yale University’s first communication and consent educators. He worked with students and groups around the campus to build a more positive sexual and romantic culture.

Interestingly, several students who previewed this piece struggled with the concept that it is up to survivors to determine what’s right for them—especially the suggestion that for some survivors, recovery might involve flirting at a party. Our student reviewers are thoughtful and their concern clearly stemmed from a sense of protectiveness toward those who have suffered sexual violence. Ironically, though, the urge to desexualize survivors is an example of the “othering” we caution against.

The takeaway? Our own discomfort is never constructively addressed by denying other adults’ sexuality. For those commonly desexualized (like women, disabled people, and elderly people) it means a loss of autonomy and choice. Desexualization contributes to a sexual culture that shames and blames the victims of sexual coercion and violence, not the perpetrators. It’s another important, if uncomfortable, reminder that in life (and in public health) good intent is not enough.

The new smoking scene: What does it mean for you?

This month’s quiz honors the Great American Smokeout. Instead of leaning heavily on the familiar message that nicotine is horrible for our health (which we know is ineffective), we’re going for harm reduction. In this piece, we acknowledge students’ motivation for using tobacco products—e.g., social anxiety and peer bonding. We aim to show that it’s worth investing in healthier, evidence-based goals and approaches (e.g., anxiety management and motivational interviewing), and we facilitate students’ access to those techniques. For those who can’t practice alternative healthy behaviors, we’re looking to reduce the risk.

The use of e-cigarettes (vaping) has forced health care providers and communicators to grapple with another dilemma. Although the e-cigarette was developed as a harm reduction method, it still (usually) involves nicotine consumption. Should we warn people off it altogether? At SH101, we recognize that much research is needed on the potential risks and benefits. Still, for smokers wanting to quit, e-cigarettes are probably less harmful than traditional cigarettes.

Avoiding the flu: Are your healthy habits enough?

Our own surveys clearly show students’ belief that their healthy behaviors (such as eating fresh produce and working out) “boost” their immunity and substitute for a flu shot. This belief, though false, is not altogether surprising, given the widespread dissemination of erroneous messages about immunity and vaccines. In this feature, experts outline what’s wrong with the concept that immunity can be “boosted”. We look at the limitations of those healthy behaviors—they probably won’t protect us from the flu—while acknowledging their value in so many other aspects of our health.

What works with students and the flu shot? A 2014 study at Swarthmore College showed that many students intend to get the flu shot but fail to follow through. The researchers found that peer messaging was effective in delivering info about the flu shot, and a financial incentive (e.g., $10) worked for increasing flu vaccination rates among students. Other programs have shown the effectiveness of simply making flu shots more accessible. At the University of Pennsylvania, well-advertised flu shot clinics held in central locations on campus have reportedly resulted in their highest vaccination numbers so far.

Vaccination may be the one of the most complex health communication issues of our time. If you have insights into what does and doesn’t resonate with students, we’d love to hear from you.

The November issue also includes these articles and more:

Spend smart: 8 steps to a budget that sticks  Our previous short feature on smart budgeting (January 2015) was so popular among students that we gave it more space, breaking down the steps and providing additional info and guidance.

Procrastination/mindfulness   Our Mind your mind series directly relates mindfulness strategies to the stressors and struggles that students face routinely. In the third installment, Dr. Holly Rogers of Duke University looks at how mindfulness helps with procrastination—one of the topics students ask us about most frequently.

Stress and the student body  This infographic compares Your body & mind on stress with Your body & mind on resilience and outlines how to turn the first into the second. It recommends that each student establishes their own “black bag” of stress-management techniques, including a range of options that can cover them for any situation.

Our editorial team truly welcomes your feedback on how our content is working for your school and your suggestions for making it better. Please don’t hold back.

Best wishes,
Lucy Berrington
Editor (college editions)