Dr. Laura M. Longo
Dr. Laura M. Longo

Decades of research have examined the effectiveness of in-person prevention efforts to address substance misuse among college students. In response to COVID-19, schools have shifted to remote learning environments, making in-person prevention efforts challenging for many campuses. This situation pushes alcohol and other drug prevention professionals to consider what our work looks like in the virtual space. What are the best methods to reach our students while remaining physically distant? How can we implement effective prevention strategies when our students, once located on our campus, are spread across the nation and around the world? Where do we go from here and what do we need to know?
 
While this new landscape is largely unknown, current prevention practices can offer some guidance. Here are some points for consideration:
 

  1. Gather data from your student population. Consider conducting a needs assessment to collect critical information about your students during the COVID-19 pandemic, and compare this data with your pre-COVID-19 findings.
  • What: Identify AOD topics most relevant to your students’ needs, noting any unique issues created because of the current pandemic.
  • How: Identify approaches to deliver AOD prevention materials and increase student engagement. Elicit information on student preferences for methods of dissemination (e.g., social media content/video, interactive games/quizzes, podcast, newsletters, presentations).
  • Where: Identify virtual platforms conducive to prevention programming.
  • Who: Identify who students want to receive information from. Who do they trust? Behavioral health professionals, peer leaders, a respected faculty member, student influencers, or others?

 

  1. Be accessible and be seen. A lot of time and energy will go into virtual prevention efforts and it’s important that your students can interact with them. Ensure that your social media and virtual platforms are accessible to students with disabilities. Cast a wide net that will allow you to share your materials and promote programming events. Consider collaboration with peer educators, student influencers, and departments on campus who have popular social media handles to increase visibility.

 

  1. Use a multimodal approach.
  • Convert informational materials that would have been distributed or displayed in person (e.g., protective behavioral strategies, social norms campaign) to digital files for sharing in the virtual space. The CDC’s guide to writing for social media provides some helpful tips.
  • Host a live presentation on AOD topics that your students are interested in. Use the chat box to moderate a Q&A session, record the event, and repost clips or the entire presentation for those who missed it to encourage on-demand access. Keep in mind that many students, particularly those experiencing poverty, may not have access to computers at all times and therefore may be unable to have synchronous access to educational programs.
  • Offer Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment for alcohol and drug use within the virtual space. Use online methods to continue your work with students, and advertise these screening opportunities broadly.
  • Reach out to parents, families, and legal guardians with AOD prevention information and prepare them for conversations around AOD issues and healthy communication with their students, particularly in the context of new student orientation and the first-year experience.
  • Consider ways in which alcohol and other drug use intersect with the sociopolitical landscape. Address issues related to health disparities; health literacy; and race-, gender identity-, and sexual orientation-based trauma in your work.
  • Consult with campus colleagues or program liaisons who oversee at-risk groups (e.g., fraternity and sorority students) and determine how you can best connect with their students in the virtual space.
  • Increase awareness of the connection between substance use (e.g., tobacco/cannabis-based products), COVID-19, and student health. While tobacco and cannabis use prevention is always important, respiratory health is increasingly relevant given the risk for coronavirus susceptibility.

 

  1. Address student well-being. In light of the current climate, prevention materials should ideally be strengths-based and target healthy ways to cope with uncertainty; isolation; stress; and race-, gender identity-, and sexual orientation-based trauma, as the literature demonstrates connections between each of these constructs and substance misuse among college students. Offer strategies for connecting with others (e.g., video streaming platforms, online games), staying healthy (e.g., sleep hygiene, physical activity), and supporting academic success from home (e.g., routine, a quiet place to study).

 

  1. Pilot and assess. As is the case with in-person prevention efforts, evaluate your efforts. Brief surveys can be used to evaluate virtual events. If using social media, review your analytics to determine which posts have the most and least interaction – observe trends in types of topics, approach, content (video, images), or times of day that you can capitalize on through your prevention efforts.

 
While prevention in the virtual space is new to many of us, this unprecedented time offers an opportunity to be curious and innovative. As we move forward, it is important that we continue to apply our expertise and best practices in assessment and evaluation to guide and refine our next steps.
 
 


Dr. Laura M. Longo received her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University at Albany in 2019. She is a prevention professional in the Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research, and a staff psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services at the University at Albany. She also provides psychotherapy services to individuals with substance use disorders at an outpatient hospital setting. Dr. Longo is passionate about understanding factors that influence college students’ substance use. Her work focuses on the design, delivery, and evaluation of innovative prevention and intervention services geared toward minimizing substance misuse behaviors. Dr. Longo has provided training in the evidence-based practice of Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment through her position on a grant funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Additionally, she was awarded two R13 travel grants by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as well as an APA Dissertation Award to complete her study on secondhand effects of alcohol use among college students.
 
 

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