In response to the pandemic, 62.9 percent of young adults reported peak anxiety and depression levels according to the New York Times, coinciding with 24.7 percent reporting an increase or start in coping with substances. Sex, drugs, and alcohol did not disappear with the pandemic, and neither did support from Student Health Outreach and Promotion (SHOP) at UC Santa Cruz.
SHOP assists students with a range of experiences and struggles — sexual and reproductive health, alcohol and other drug use, addiction and recovery, eating disorders, mental health, and fatigue and sleep deprivation. In winter 2021, 284 students used SHOP’s peer-to-peer virtual drop-in hours to access support on sexual health education, alcohol and other drug prevention, and recovery support. SHOP professional staff facilitated 166 virtual wellness counseling sessions.
“We’re helping students navigate some of these experiences that for a lot of people are new when they first get to college,” said health educator at SHOP Amber Parker. “[They] can be fun and exciting and we want them to remain that way and not to stem to something that feels overwhelming, like an unplanned pregnancy or a DUI. We’re here to educate and help students to make things as safe as possible and also just be their authentic self.”
When the pandemic started last spring, SHOP director Meg Kobe and the other three staffers adjusted their services to be fully online. In doing so, they developed a new wellness model that uses virtual drop-in hours throughout the week with various daily topics such as general wellness, birth control information, and drug and alcohol use.
When UCSC opened up COVID testing on campus in August 2020, the SHOP professional staff were redeployed to assist in running the testing kiosks and training students. The new responsibility came with UCSC’s Employee Redeployment program which reassigned the staff members whose work had decreased due to COVID restrictions.
“It’s been really rewarding and very interesting to take some of the health education skills, some of the public health skills that we bring to SHOP and use it in a different way to support students around COVID prevention,” Parker said. “There’s a lot of similarities between talking about COVID and talking about sex and setting boundaries and STI prevention.”
Alongside its professional staff, SHOP runs with the help of student volunteers, interns, and employees. In a normal year, SHOP has 40 to 60 students working with them. This year, they only have five due to the pandemic. The student employees help with outreach, answering questions during drop-in hours, and hosting workshops.
UCSC second-year, Max Silverstein, began volunteering with SHOP during their freshman year and now works as the SHOP education outreach coordinator. Alongside hosting weekly drop-in hours, Silverstein runs the Slug Love campaign at SHOP, which hosts workshops on sexual health.
“Especially during the pandemic, the way that we think about sexual health, the way that we think about being sexually active has changed a lot,” Silverstein said. “There’s a lot more things that you have to consider when you’re on Tinder or something like that. It’s so important to give people the information and the resources to do that in a way that will reduce harm.”
Silverstein also works behind the scenes to create more transgender health resources while making sure the virtual work that SHOP does can still be accessible and transferable once the program can function in person again.
As Santa Cruz COVID restrictions loosen, SHOP has begun tabling in-person on campus in front of the Merrill testing center on Mondays from 2 to 4 p.m. and every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to1 p.m. in front of the College 9/10 dining hall. Tabling is the only in-person outreach for SHOP this quarter and aims to connect students with SHOP and other campus resources like the pharmacy.
Director Kobe has been working at SHOP for 18 years and expressed that while in-person connections are vital, some aspects of communications via Zoom and phone calls work better for many students because they can hide their identity, or feel less exposed than they would if entering an office in-person. She said that whether it be in person or virtual, it can be embarrassing to ask about topics like sex or alcohol.
“Reaching out for support is a sign of strength,” Kobe said. “If you or any of your friends are struggling through this and need someone to talk to, we’re a great first place to land. […] we’re really connected on campus so we can help students get to the most appropriate resource.”
More information about SHOP’s hours, resources, and events can be found here.