Mental Health Advocates offer ‘first line of defense’ for OUWB medical students
An image of a medical student at a computer

A service offered by an OUWB student organization aims to give the school’s medical students a “first line of defense” when seeking assistance with mental health.

The option is in the form of their medical school peers who have received special training to become Mental Health Advocates (MHAs)— a program made available by the Mental Health and Psychiatry Interest Group (MHP).

The idea is that medical students at the school might feel more comfortable talking with their specially trained peers about mental health-related topics and issues, according to Lydia Kim, M2, president, MHP. And because of their training, MHAs might be able to recognize when others might need help.

“A lot of people feel intimidated or scared to reach out to a professional counseling service,” said Kim. “This is a way to bridge that gap. If more professional assistance is needed, it would also be an easier way to transition them to getting that help.”

Details of the program were highlighted in a letter to the editor that appeared in the AAMC’s Academic Medicine journal in September. It was co-authored by Charlene Hsia, M.D., and Abiba Salahou, M.D., both OUWB ’23.

The letter explains how students “sought to supplement the school’s traditional mental health support systems with a more personalized approach to address mental health. At OUWB, medical students established the (MHA) initiative.”

“MHA empowers students to support their peers, addresses the shortage of on-campus counseling services, and can be maintained through yearly trainings with existing mental health professionals,” wrote Hsia and Salahou.

Students interested in serving as MHAs are trained by OUWB Student Mental Health Counselors Janae Kinn, LMSW, and Ashley Watters, MA, LPC.

This year, there were two sessions: one that stressed overall listening and communication skills, and another that focused on suicide prevention.

According to The Physicians Foundation, physicians have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession. More than half of physicians know a physician who has either considered, attempted, or died by suicide.

“Aside from that, there’s just so much that goes on with medical school,” said Kim. “M1s are adjusting to medical school. M2s are getting ready to take their first set of board exams.”

Kim said that sometimes it’s “a lot easier to reach out to your peers who are going through the same things in school.”

“Even with professional counseling services, they don’t necessarily know the little nuances of school or the pressures of taking exams,” said Kim.

Kim said the group creates awareness of MHAs via newsletters that have the names of those who have gone through training.

OUWB’s counselors Kinn and Watters strongly support the MHA program.  

Watters said the sense of connectedness and community that medical students feel with each other makes the MHA service a good option for many who want to talk about what they’re going through.

“The idea that students can be helpful for other students is really powerful,” she said.

Kinn said she views it as a “first line of defense.”

“Students are more likely to reach out to other medical students in many situations to see if they can sort out whatever is happening to them that way,” said Kinn. “If that doesn’t work, they look at other available resources.”

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Kinn and Watters are licensed clinicians and part of OUWB’s Student Affairs team.

Kinn has been with OUWB since 2019. Prior to OUWB, her training and background involved working with individuals who had experienced high levels of trauma as well as cognitive behavioral therapy, integrated care, and secondhand traumatic stress. 

Watters has been with OUWB since 2022. Prior to OUWB, she worked in numerous college counseling centers, most recently at Central Michigan University’s College of Medicine. Her background includes working with individuals dealing with generalized anxiety, social anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome, and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, intimate partner violence, and more.

When working with OUWB medical students, both are bound by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). That means they can’t disclose anything that is said to them during counseling sessions to school officials. However — like they do with the MHA program — they can work with others on general programming related to mental health.

Kinn and Watters both are available for in-person or video meetings. They only see medical students and can see them for the duration of their time at OUWB — there is no session limit or cost for students. Because there are no costs involved, there isn’t any type of insurance requirement.

If students prefer to see an Oakland University counselor who does not work for OUWB, they do have that option. However, sessions cost $20 each and there is a limit to the number of sessions.

If you are in a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

To schedule an appointment with Kinn or Watters, call the OU Counseling Center at 248-370-3465.

For more information, contact Andrew Dietderich, marketing writer, OUWB, at [email protected].

To request an interview, visit the OUWB Communications & Marketing webpage.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.