For this edition of the “Looking Forward” newsletter, we’re exploring the topic of physician and student mental health in the medical community. I recently spoke with Alexandra (Pentel) Lawlor, OMS III, who attends the Kansas City University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Prior to entering osteopathic medical school, Lawlor worked as a public health consultant in Washington, D.C. after earning an MPH and BS in chemistry from the University of Virginia.
While attending the University of Virginia, Lawlor created If YoureReadingThis.org, a mental health resource that hosts letters of support from students, faculty and alumni with the goal of ending the stigma surrounding mental illness and providing meaningful support for students struggling with depression and anxiety.
Here’s an edited and condensed account of our conversation.
Q: Tell me about IfYoureReadingThis.
A: IfYoureReadingThis (IYRT) is a mental health nonprofit that empowers students to build and tap into their support networks by amplifying the faces and voices of the people who want to connect. We strive to help students feel comfortable talking about their mental health by identifying people who want to listen and by showing an outpouring of love and understanding. Our mission is to create community around mental health, encourage radical empathy, and use peer support to bridge gaps in mental health resources.
Q: What inspired you to create IYRT?
A: I created IfYoureReadingThis in 2016 after a nearly two-year struggle with my own mental health, which subsequently affected my grades, my health and my relationships. After finally seeking help, I thought about why I suffered in silence for so long. I realized that I, like most college students at the time, feared that outreach to friends, family and peers about mental health challenges would be met with judgment and rejection.
I didn’t know who to turn to, which left me feeling isolated. Through my experience, I learned (and current research has shown) that social support networks are one of our most valuable coping mechanisms. Yet, building these networks is difficult when we’re unsure if we’ll be met with acceptance and empathy. That chasm is what sparked the idea for IfYoureReadingThis: A place where members of the community come forward first and share the responsibility of being vulnerable, thus closing the gap between students with mental health challenges and those who care about them.
My hope is that the platform will host so many letters that any student can scroll and find a letter written by someone they know, which will help the student know they’re not alone and open the door to connecting with an understanding friend. In essence, I wanted to build a solution to the problem I myself faced.
Q: What can we as physicians and medical students learn from IYRT?
A: The overwhelmingly positive response the program has received, as well as the speed with which other universities have adopted similar programs, makes one thing clear: Peer support matters. Of note, peer support doesn’t just matter for college students. At OMED 2023, I attended a session by Jo Shapiro, MD, titled “Peer Support: A Key Driver of Clinician Wellbeing,” which drove home the same message for physicians: Peer support is effective, and it is ideally proactive. Being loud and outspoken about your support for mental health and your peers builds a culture of wellness that benefits everybody. Just a few ways you can embrace proactive peer support include:
Being intentional about how you respond to your peers when they share their negative feelings or stressors.
Identifying yourself via a lapel pin, office decor, etc. that you are someone people can talk to about mental health.
Implementing a peer support program (more from Dr. Shapiro on that).
And, of course, writing and publishing an IfYoureReadingThis letter or sharing an “If you’re reading this” message on social media.
You don’t have to share your own experiences on mental health to be a positive peer support; you just have to tell others you’re there for them. Even if nobody takes you up on your offer, it can make a difference to people just to know that support exists if they need it.
Q: How can readers get involved with IYRT if they’re interested?
A: You can support or get involved with IfYoureReadingThis in the following ways: