Mental health care is in high demand. Psychologists are leveraging tech and peers to meet the need

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Focused brief group therapy (FBGT) is another strategy that increases access by empowering participants to practice skills in a safe environment. The model, which involves 8 to 12 sessions of group therapy, was developed by Whittingham when he was an associate professor of clinical psychology at Wright State University. The counseling center’s providers had long waitlists and a desperate need for an intervention that would fit within the school calendar system. “I knew students were developmentally concerned about relationships, and I wanted to use the power of the group to help people,” Whittingham said.

Participants take a preassessment called the interpersonal circumplex to understand their specific type of relationship distress. The tool assesses traits like assertiveness, dominance, agreeableness, and warmth, and members collaboratively establish goals with the therapist to improve relationships. During the meetings, participants restate their goals and practice new behaviors. If someone shares difficulties with a relationship, a group member who is striving to be less conflictual could practice being supportive by asking follow-up questions and affirming the individual. “This is not role play,” Whittingham said. “By interacting in real time, people experience deep physical and emotional responses because they are often afraid of rejection.” When they take risks by trying new behaviors and experience acceptance, participants are more willing to try the new behaviors in their lives, he said.

Although FBGT originated in the university setting, an increasing number of health care organizations have started contacting Whittingham to learn how to implement the model. Psychiatrist Meenakshi Denduluri, MD, was drawn to FBGT because the groups were here-and-now focused rather than centered on skills-based psychoeducation. Denduluri, who recently led FBGT in the Stanford University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in California, had also noticed that patients in individual therapy often struggled with interpersonal patterns that inhibited their ability to progress in treatment. “The psychological safety in the therapy groups allowed people to take interpersonal risks that they could not take in their personal lives,” she said.

College campuses are also increasingly leveraging the healing power of social connections to boost support for students struggling with mental health issues. Although peer support programs are not new, they are proliferating on campuses nationwide amid a current mental health crisis and a renewed understanding that supporting students is the responsibility of the whole campus community—including peers, said Zoe Ragouzeos, PhD, LCSW, executive director of Counseling and Wellness Services at New York University. These peer programs can reduce stigma, reach more people, and increase diversity in the support options, she explained.

Mental health providers at New York University were eager to incorporate peers into the school’s student support offerings in 2023, which prompted Ragouzeos to launch a peer listening program in which participants divided into pairs and responded to a prompt, such as “What is on your heart right now?” The participants took turns listening and sharing with responses of either “Is there more?” or “Thank you for sharing.” Partners ended the conversation by expressing in a positive way how it felt getting to know the other person. Survey results from more than 500 students showed that most participants felt less stress, anxiety, and overwhelm after the peer listening interactions. “It was remarkable how many students feel that they don’t have a forum in which they can speak about what is going on without interruption,” Ragouzeos said.

Peer support programs range from psychoeducation, in which trained students provide information on mental health topics, to support groups, where students gather in formalized settings to share their experiences and feelings. Ragouzeos has seen robust interest among students to learn how to help peers who are struggling and have conversations that boost well-being. “We can’t meet the needs without them because too few people come through the formal channels of counseling services,” said Ragouzeos. “It is our responsibility to find ways to engage students in helping each other and ensure they have the right resources to support one another safely.”


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