Pilot Program to Reduce Student Stress Testing Well Received

Neil Canavan, MSc

March 17, 2011

March 17, 2011 (Washington, DC) — A pilot program using a long-distance approach to student wellness has shown promise in reducing medical-school-related symptoms of stress and anxiety. Among the participants, second-year students studying for the United States Medical Licensing Examination reported the greatest benefit. The latest results of the study were presented here at the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) 61st Annual Convention.

Previous studies have shown that up to 30% of medical students test positive for depression, and that after accidents, suicide is the most common reason for death in this cohort. Although many, if not all, students have access to counseling services offered at their school, serious wellness deficits remain in this at-risk population.

The AMSA Mastermind Program, initiated in 2009, offers a unique long-distance interactive peer-support system for medical students. "I was having a really tough time as a second-year medical student," said the study's lead author, Deepa Sannidhi, from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey–New Jersey School of Medicine in Newark. "Then I went to my first AMSA national leadership meeting, and the community that it gave me felt so wonderful, I wanted to find a way to offer the same to other medical students who did not have such an opportunity."

Key to this effort is the ability to interact with peers over the telephone or the Internet.

In the Mastermind Program, students attend conference call group sessions with like-minded peers — those who are also struggling — and participate in Web-based "skill sessions" that focus on student wellness topics, ranging from stress reduction to financial management to suicide prevention. Critical to both approaches was the guarantee of student confidentiality. The study period of 1 year involved 3 student groups and the associated resident facilitators.

"The biggest obstacle we had to overcome was that the students having the most trouble in school were also the most likely to not have the time for weekly conference calls," said Ms. Sannidhi. And since it was remote, it was considered easier to forgo. Results showed that the students who benefited the most from the program were people who were taking a break from medical school, those on summer break, or students studying for their US Medical Licensing Examination. "It seems a bit ironic. The board is the biggest thing in medical school for most people, but it's a time when you have nothing to do but study. Mastermind was a welcome relief for those students."

Fellowship May Be the Key

Commenting on Mastermind, Nathan Brooks, a second-year student at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine, Tulsa, was quick to recognize its power. "When you can get students from across the country who may be struggling academically, socially, or personally in medical school . . . together to share their experience and how they're dealing with these issues — what's working for them, and what isn't — that's a really good thing for students."

Mr. Brooks had taken advantage of the counseling services available to him through his university during the period in which he transitioned to medical school, "but I'm not sure it was very helpful. If I had been with other med students in a safe environment, I would have gotten more out of it. Not that the counselors didn't know what they were doing — I just didn't feel I related to them, since they hadn't been through the medical school process."

Ms. Sannidhi and Mr. Brooks have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Medical Student Association (AMSA) 61st Annual Convention. Presented March 12, 2011.

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