Students take the lead in peer support

Students take the lead in peer support

Clubs, workshops help future medical professionals develop leadership, compassion

By Keri Sweetman

Students taking the University of Alberta's Medical Laboratory Science degree went to their program director, Lisa Purdy, last year with an unusual suggestion: They wanted a self-defence course.

Working evening shifts as part of their clinical training, some were worried about walking to public transit late at night. Purdy agreed to fund the self-defence course but challenged them to do more. Why not offer self-help workshops every month throughout the academic year?

And so was born the Medical Laboratory Science program's Student Wellness Nights, with a nutritionist talking about budget meal-planning, a study room with puppies, yoga, a talk from a financial adviser and, yes, a self-defence session. While it was funded by the Medical Laboratory Sciences program, all the planning and executing was done by the students.

Fourth-year student Denise Alano is vice-president of wellness for the Medical Laboratory Students Association and will oversee the Wellness Nights this academic year. "In this program, the faculty already open their doors to students who may need help and support and they do a very good job at that," says Alano. "But we also figured it's very important for us as students to reinforce that we do support each other."

Purdy agrees that it's vital for the students to take the lead in support groups. "We need to foster leadership within our trainees, because otherwise how are they going to practise that when they get out into the health-care environment?"

Students in the Undergraduate Medical Doctor program have their own Mental Health Advocates team, which holds events and workshops throughout the academic year. One workshop last year dealt with talking about suicide. "We looked at it through the clinical lens about how to talk with a patient," says Paul Barber, a second-year medical student and team leader, "but one of our subtle goals was to help facilitate that conversation between students as well."

The team's biggest project is the student-led Mental Health Week, whose capstone event is Mental Health Monologues, where students take to the stage of Dewey's pub to share personal stories. The Monologues event, which has been running about four years at the U of A, has since been adopted on other campuses across Canada.

While funding for the events comes mainly from the Medical Students Association, Barber says the Mental Health Advocates team gets incredible support from the Advocacy & Wellbeing office.

"It's vital that students take on these peer-support roles," says Barber. "You are not always going to have a board or a faculty member to facilitate these conversations. So teaching students to do that themselves is incredibly empowering."

Melanie Lewis, Associate Dean of the Advocacy & Wellbeing office, agrees. "I think a lot of this stuff has to come from peers; it can't be top-down. And our job in those cases is to support students in any way we can."

For many years, the medical students have also run a program called Coffee with Clerks, which matches incoming first-year medical students with third-year students who are beginning their clinical placements, known as clerkships.

Carter Smith, a fourth-year student who was one of the organizers last year, says the matches give first-year students "a link, an ear, somebody who has been through it all, who can answer your questions and help with some of the anxiety." Almost all first- and third-year students take part and the partnerships usually last two years.