Big Issues

How Studying With Your Peers Can Improve Your Mental Health

The Write Smarter: Feel Better program shows us the overwhelming benefits of study buddies.

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Karra Harrington was in the middle of her PhD candidature when she realised her mental health could use a boost. Stress and a sense of isolation were beginning to take a toll, and Karra – who also happens to be a registered psychologist – realised she needed to do something.

“I think my psychology background was what prompted me in the first place to think, ‘How I’m feeling is probably not great, and I wonder if other people are feeling like this’,” she tells Uni Junkee.

The short answer is “yes”, according to Melanie Carew, head of education at the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Mental Health. “About half of PhD students report psychological distress during their candidature,” says Melanie.

But mental health challenges aren’t limited to PhD candidates; research has shown that up to two thirds of uni students experience significant psychological distress over the course of their studies.

As well as connecting students with important supports such as counselling, Melanie and Karra say it can be helpful to bring them together with each other.

Feeling Better

Over the past eighteen months, they’ve developed Write Smarter: Feel Better, an innovative program that combines private study with group discussion around the challenges of academia, including mental health.

“Originally,” says Karra, “the program started as a writing group trying to reduce some of the social isolation that I noticed I was feeling as a PhD student, and that I was aware some of my peers were experiencing.

 A major 2017 study found being part of a regular social group… could even function as a kind of “social cure”

“It’s kind of evolved over time to kind of include more peer mentoring aspects in the program as well, where we’re really encouraging the students that are in the group to support each other.”

The link between social connectedness and wellbeing is well known in research. A major 2017 study found being part of a regular social group like a sports team or a study group could even function as a kind of “social cure” for psychological ill health.

Learning From Your Peers

How Group Study Can Improve Your Mental Health

In the Write Smarter program, sessions are mostly led by students, for students, who can sign up to be group facilitators.

“[It’s] like a peer mentoring program type of approach,” Melanie explains. “They go and get mental health and first aid training, and they also get some facilitation training from the uni, and then they run these programs.”

Each group has about six to eight students. They meet once a month to work on individual projects, learn skills that help them manage their studies, and discuss the challenges that come with the PhD lifestyle.

Thanks to video conferencing, there’s no reason remote students can’t take advantage of the program’s benefits, either. “We’ve had people who have chronic health issues or parental responsibilities, those types of things which mean it’s difficult to get to campus, but this way they can still see their peers, still make progress on their projects,” Melanie says.

While the Write Smarter: Feel Better program has been developed specifically around the PhD experience, Karra says there’s been a lot of interest in adapting the program for undergraduates. “I think a lot of aspects about the program are relevant for undergrads, especially around managing their time effectively and reducing procrastination.

“It can also be really hard for undergrads to build up a peer network. I know when I started my undergrad I found it really hard to make friends initially, so I think there’s definitely that social isolation aspect.”

Getting Support From Your Uni

The program has already been taken up by Melbourne University across all faculties. But Melanie points out that there is more that institutions can do to support their students’ mental health.

“There’s a range of factors. We certainly don’t think that this program is the be-all and end-all, or that this is the only thing that needs to be done. I see it as one of a range of things that universities can offer.”

Karra says the program has made a big difference in her life. “I’m often working by myself at home a lot, so even just knowing that once a month I’m going to have the chance to meet with other people who understand what I’m going through – and break up the monotony of being by myself – I think that’s been really helpful.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, you can find help by seeking advice from a counsellor or calling Lifeline on 13 11 14.