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Written By

Andrew Cramb

College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

19 December 2022

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Student-led program at JCU establishes new support frameworks for our future doctors.

While no one chooses a career in medicine expecting an easy ride, the demands and stresses can sometimes be too much to bear alone. JCU has teamed up with Hand-n-Hand to help our future doctors facilitate more open conversations around mental health and create support frameworks through 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 MBBS3 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 the study of 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."

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 approaching the mid-point, they’re established, and they know how the course is structured. 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.

“I was very happy with the number of students who were willing to participate. In saying that I'm hoping more students within that cohort become involved as we continue the program,” Dr Matich says.

Given the demands of studying medicine, JCU ensures that students have access to a range of services and resources to support mental health and well-being. The Hand-n-Hand program adds another layer of structured support.

“One of the absolute strengths of the JCU Medical program is the support available for students," Dr Matich says. "The point of difference with this initiative is that it's not a clinical supervision, supervisory program or mentorship program.

“It's an equal playing field, sharing in a supportive and comfortable environment. I think it is really important for the students to be able to develop these networks and prioritise mental health as they progress through their degree and out into the workforce,” Dr Matich says.

‘From Students; For Students’

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 in both in terms of participants and facilitator roles. It's unsurprising, given medicine's focus as a helping and caring profession. It's great to see and we're keen to train more facilitators as the program continues," Dr Matich says.

The JCU Medical Student Association (JCUMSA) has been heavily involved in informing 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.”

Another student, who has been de-identified in line with the confidentiality of the program, has said they are already seeing the benefits of peer support.

“With exams fast approaching, our weekly coffee catch-ups are extremely helpful to ground ourselves for the week and express anything that's weighing on our minds," the student said. "It's been awesome to get to know more people from my cohort in a non-judgmental setting and understand that we're all facing similar struggles. I’m excited for what's to come with Hand-n-Hand."

It's reassuring feedback for Dr Matich, who says it's a clear indication of the value of, and need for, the new program.

“It is great to have the feedback. From the discussions we've had, 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.

Rolling out the program: clear need and interest in peer support

With the MBBS3 pilot program now established, 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. “Hopefully, they will be able to retain the student groups and meet online as they navigate internship. Having a support group they know and trust, who will be going through a similar experience at the same time, will have an incredibly protective effect on mental wellbeing.”

Dr Matich will be gathering information and data in preparation for publication as the project progresses. In November, she presented her work at her PhD Confirmation of Candidature seminar.

“I am so thankful for the support of JCU, in particular my supervisors Prof Brett McDermott and A/Prof Peter Johnson, and to Hand-n-Hand founder, Dr Tahnee Bridson.

“I've been interested in the wellbeing of doctors and medical students for several years now and I am so proud to be leading this project. It's so good getting that early feedback and to know this program can make a real and tangible difference in the lives of medical students,” Dr Matich says.

MBBS3 students involved in the pilot program (shared with permission by Dr Paula Matich)

Reframing the mental health conversation in the medical profession

As a psychiatry registrar at Townsville University Hospital, Dr Matich advocates for clinicians to be having open and honest discussions about the importance of mental health and wellbeing in their profession.

“There are significant concerns and biases that exist in health. There is a persisting perception that as a doctor, or even as a medical student, you are not meant to show vulnerability or weakness. This attitude makes it difficult to have honest conversations which can restrict connection with your peers and colleagues. That culture is directly challenged by a program like this because this is all about real connection and support,” Dr Matich says.

Hand-n-Hand came into being in a COVID-19 environment, with the pandemic's pressure highlighting and exacerbating mental health issues and burnout among health professionals. Since its launch in March 2020, the volunteer-run organisation has grown to include hundreds of participants and facilitators across the health professions in Australia and New Zealand. Dr Matich says the speed at which the program has been adopted by health professionals is an encouraging indication of a shifting attitude towards mental health.

"As a profession, we're slowly starting to realise that a fundamental part of being human is having moments of vulnerability. We need to be protective and mindful of our mental wellbeing. I know I am a better doctor when I am in touch with my humanity,' Dr Matich says.

For her contribution to improving the mental health of healthcare workers, founder Dr Tahnee Bridson was recognised as the Queensland Young Australian of the Year 2022.

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. If you would like to stay up to date about the rollout of the program, you can express interest in participating in the program.

JCU students can also access support to help cope with stress, address mental health concerns and access professional help.

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