Nov. 2, 2022

Multidisciplinary initiative harnesses the Power of Peer Mentorship

Research team unveils new course to empower students to become effective mental health peer-mentors
People of different ethnicities and genders place their hands on each others.

A multidisciplinary research team at the University of Calgary has developed a self-directed online micro-credential course — Power of Peer Mentorship — freely available to all UCalgary students.

The project is led by Dr. Diane Lorenzetti, PhD, from Libraries and Cultural Resources and the Cumming School of Medicine, in collaboration with Dr. Tracey Clancy, PhD, Faculty of Nursing; Dr. Liza Lorenzetti, PhD, Faculty of Social Work; Dr. Lorelli Nowell, PhD, Faculty of Nursing; Dr. Elizabeth Oddone Paolucci, PhD, Cumming School of Medicine; and Dr. Michele Jacobsen, PhD, from the Werklund School of Education.

Team lead Lorenzetti says the newly available program is the result of several years of research exploring the role of peer mentorship in higher education. In 2016, the team began to study the peer mentoring behaviours and experiences of students at the University of Calgary.

“We wanted to learn more about what those mentoring relationships looked like and how they supported students’ university experiences,” she explains. “We were also curious about the role that universities played or could play in supporting the development of these relationships”.

In 2020/2021 the findings from this research were published in Education Research International and Studies in Graduate and Postdoctoral Education.

Through their research, the team found that students define and approach peer mentorship relationships differently. For some, these are viewed as short-term relationships that are strictly focused on knowledge acquisition and skill development.

For others, peer mentoring relationships evolve into long-term friendships, where students support one another in navigating the psychosocial challenges of academic life — as exemplified by the extreme isolation experienced by many students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team also found that while some students clearly benefited from the availability of formal peer mentoring programs at UCalgary, others were reluctant to take on these roles.

“They didn't feel prepared to act as peer mentors. They didn't necessarily feel that they had the skill set,” says Lorenzetti.

I'm hoping that this course will help students to realize is that you don't need to do it all on your own. There's no stigma or shame associated with reaching out and asking for help.

The team listened to this feedback and responded. The Power of Peer Mentorship course introduces students to the benefits of peer mentorship and aims to help them increase their capacity to be effective mental health peer-mentors. 

Divided into eight modules, the course incorporates training in mental health awareness, identifying personal peer mentoring needs, locating peer networks, improving communication skills, and strategies for accessing mental health support on and off campus, including guidance on supporting individuals who may be experiencing a mental health crisis.

“The course also focuses on peers being connectors and navigators for each other,” says team member Michele Jacobsen. “A more experienced peer, who is perhaps a year ahead or further, can help a new student to navigate the different kinds of services and supports available at the program level, the faculty level, and at the university level.”  

“I'm hoping that this course will help students to realize is that you don't need to do it all on your own,” says Diane Lorenzetti. “There's no stigma or shame associated with reaching out and asking for help.” 

Liza Lorenzetti concurs. “I would add that there's still quite a bit of stigma throughout our professions regarding mental health and seeking help. That's why I believe our project is extremely important because it opens the dialogue among peers regarding the topic of mental health. It underscores the idea that we are all somewhere on the continuum of well-being, and we can support one another.”

While the benefits to students are apparent, the process of developing this course has also proved to be a meaningful experience for the team behind it.

“I really do see that this project offers interdisciplinary understanding of the value of these types of collaborations, not only to the disciplines of the individuals involved, but all disciplines at the University of Calgary,” says Jacobsen.

“I think the university is a space of high achievement where people sometimes feel that they need to push through other issues happening in their lives,” adds Liza Lorenzetti.  “And so, as collaborative scholars, we are also being peer mentors in our own ways, because we're opening that dialogue as well.”

Learn more about the Power of Peer Mentorship, including how to register.

Diane Lorenzetti is an associate librarian in the Health Sciences Library in Libraries and Cultural Resources, and is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.

Tracey Clancy is an associate professor and Associate Dean Curriculum Development in the Faculty of Nursing.

Elizabeth Oddone Paolucci is a professor in the departments of Community Health Sciences and Surgery at the CSM and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.

Liza Lorenzetti is an associate professor in the Faculty of Social work and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.

Lorelli Nowell is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing and member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.

Michele Jacobsen is a professor in the Werklund School of Education.