While no-one chooses a career in medicine expecting an easy ride, the demands and stresses can sometimes be too much to bear alone. James Cook University (JCU) has teamed up with Hand-n-Hand Peer Support to help future doctors facilitate more open conversations around mental health and create support frameworks through their medical training and beyond.
Hand-n-Hand is a free and confidential peer-support program founded by JCU Medicine alumnus and Queensland Young Australian of the Year 2022, Dr Tahnee Bridson. Following the launch of the partnership earlier this year, the program officially commenced in late September with seven groups of six third-year students.
JCU Adjunct Lecturer, Dr Paula Matich, is a psychiatry registrar at Townsville University Hospital and the Hand-n-Hand Research Lead for the rollout of the program for JCU Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery students.
‘There are a lot of challenges inherent to studying medicine; the hours are long and the clinical demand is high,’ Dr Matich says. ‘As a health profession, we're still navigating a global pandemic and we're seeing high rates of burnout and mental health concerns because the supports aren't always there.’
‘There is a persisting perception that, as a doctor, you are not meant to show vulnerability or weakness, which makes it difficult to have honest conversations. That attitude is directly challenged by a program like this because it’s all about real connection and support,’ Dr Matich says.
Dr Matich says the third-year cohort was chosen for the pilot program given their position coming into the clinical years of the degree.
‘These students are entering the clinical years, with more hands-on training, and a higher workload can be daunting, so this is a crucial time for support structures to be put in place,’ Dr Matich says.
As peer support, students play a core role in delivering the program as support group facilitators. These facilitators have received training on how to run the sessions and manage sensitive topics, and will continue to be supported by Dr Matich throughout the program.
‘There's been a great interest from students, both in terms of participants and facilitator roles. It's unsurprising, given medicine's focus as a helping and caring profession. We're keen to train more facilitators as the program grows,’ Dr Matich says.
The JCU Medical Student Association (JCUMSA) has been heavily involved in the development of the program, making it, as Dr Matich says, ‘from students, for students’. JCUMSA Community/Wellbeing Officer, Cathy Choong, says the program is connecting students in a meaningful way.
‘It’s created a safe space for us to share our daily wins and challenges,’ Cathy says. ‘I truly believe it has the potential to transform the attitudes surrounding mental health and will equip us as we carry these lessons beyond our years at university.’
It's reassuring feedback for Dr Matich, who says it's a clear indication of the value of, and need for, the new program.
‘Students are enjoying the independence of being able to tailor the conversations to what they would like to discuss. They're also finding it quite helpful to have these programs running during periods of high stress in their semester,’ Dr Matich says.
Plans are underway to extend the program to the fourth to sixth years from 2023. Dr Matich says she will be working particularly closely with the final-year students as they enter a pivotal time in their medical careers: the internship year.
‘I think this program will be very beneficial for the sixth-year cohort,’ Dr Matich says. ‘Having a support network will have an incredibly protective effect on mental wellbeing and empower these future doctors to prioritise their mental health.’
Since its launch in March 2020, Hand-n-Hand has grown to include hundreds of participants and facilitators across the health professions in Australia and New Zealand.