Program provides peer support to University of Arizona students in distress

Wildcats RISE stands for Resilience in Stressful Events

Program provides peer support to University of Arizona students in distress
(Source: WMC)

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The University of Arizona has launched a new health and wellness initiative that provides free peer-to-peer support for students as they manage the emotional and mental toll of current stressors, including academic demands, financial pressures, and issues related to COVID-19 and racial injustice.

Wildcats RISE, which stands for Resilience in Stressful Events, is a peer-to-peer program that offers students what’s known as psychological first aid in a confidential and safe environment.

Psychological first aid is an evidence-informed approach, designed to strengthen healthy coping practices, mitigate distress and facilitate access to continued care.

“Our student body is dealing with considerable stress – more than they usually do as they enter this academic year – and we felt it was important for them to feel supported as they navigate issues that, at times, can begin to feel overwhelming,” said University of Arizona Associate Vice Provost and Chief Wellness Officer Amy Athey, a licensed psychologist. “Wildcats RISE is designed to help mitigate distress and negative health behaviors, and it offers a critical, safe space for students needing support.”

Research indicates that COVID-19 and issues associated with it – such as unemployment, social distancing and fears about the illness – are contributing to a surge in demand for mental health support and to stress reactions such as anxiety or low mood, Athey said.

Wildcats RISE offers group and individual support sessions for Arizona students, facilitated by Arizona students. The sessions are conducted virtually via video conferencing, at no cost.

The initiative is not a clinical intervention, nor does it provide psychological treatment, Athey said. As a psychological first aid program, it instead educates participants about normal psychological responses to stress and trauma, offers an active listening space, provides an understanding of the importance of self-care, educates participants on when they may need support from a professional, and provides resources and referrals.

“This program is an important first step for students who may greatly benefit from simply talking about the issues that are causing them stress with peers experiencing similar emotional and mental strain,” Athey said. “Just as physical injuries require first aid, so, too, do stress reactions. We’re hopeful this model will mitigate stress for our students and also help identify when students require additional care.”

The group sessions, which are divided into graduate students and undergraduate students, begin on Aug. 31, and students can view a schedule and register on the Arizona Health and Wellness Initiatives website. Groups are capped at 10 participants. Students can also schedule one-on-one consultations after their first group session.

Athey said 22 graduate and undergraduate students were selected from more than 90 applicants to serve as peer leaders for the launch of Wildcats RISE. The students received extensive online training in psychological first aid and how to support individuals in crisis.

Alexa Chandler, a doctoral student in clinical psychology, is one of the volunteers.

“I am excited to be part of an initiative designed to increase students’ access to mental health and wellness support services, particularly in the context of social justice movements and COVID-19,” Chandler said. “I was drawn to Wildcats RISE because it uses the research-based approach of psychological first aid and because the peer support structure will allow students to have a space to connect with others in similar circumstances.”

Wildcats RISE was developed by Arizona Health and Wellness Initiatives in consultation with George Everly, a faculty member in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Public Health and an international expert in disaster psychology and crisis intervention. The initiative will work with campus partners to ensure that as many student populations as possible understand that support is available.

Professional mental health care for Arizona students is available through Campus Health’s Counseling and Psych Services.

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