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.