Class of 2021 alum Camille Davre was at the top of her game in Michigan’s Cross Country team when she got injured. Soon after, she found out about Mood Lifters through a mass email from the athletic department and attended the student athlete program in women’s cross country. Davre said the program helped her through the injury and the mental consequences that followed.
“It was really hard not having that sport as an anchor in my day-to-day life,” Davre said. “I was feeling lost and needed guidance – and my experience with Mood Lifters was nothing but positive.”
Patricia Deldin, U-M professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, recently started “Mood Lifters,” a U-M funded study in which graduate students and young professionals ages 22 to 32 can enter an effective, evidence-based mental wellness program for free. The program teaches scientifically-validated mental wellness strategies in a supportive group setting and is designed to improve participants’ mood and relationships.
Deldin said she began the program because she wanted a way to support her students and their mental health.
“Our graduate students here are amazing human beings, so I view Mood Lifters as an opportunity to help them thrive,” Deldin said. “Especially if we, in the psychology department, can’t do something to support our students, then why are we doing this?”
Rackham student Neema Prakash, who is studying psychology and serves as the study organizer, said the program offers a unique lens into the specific struggles and mental health issues that come up for young professionals. Prakash said she participated in the program herself four years ago and found it extremely helpful to her mental health.
“I, myself, as a grad student, struggle daily with imposter syndrome,” Prakash said. “It’s very difficult to enter a very competitive space, like graduate school, and learn to trust the people around you and learn to trust yourself. So I definitely identify a lot with the grad students I led in my groups.”
The progress of the study is monitored through weekly check-in surveys and a point system, which according to Deldin is based on the popular weight-loss program, Weight Watchers. Deldin participated in Weight Watchers many years ago and was inspired by their accessibility, affordability and consistency.
“The first week of the program is called ‘behavioral activation,’ in which we encourage people to participate in pleasurable/meaningful activities on their own,” Deldin said. “Each activity that they complete is a point, and we want participants to receive at least five points a week.”
The program is set up in 12 weekly, one-hour group sessions. These sessions are peer-led, an aspect that Deldin said she believes leads to success.
“What was really important to me when I did Weight Watchers was that the leader wasn’t just some registered dietician who’d never had a weight problem,” Deldin said. “But instead it was a real estate agent who’d lost 175 pounds. So a key piece of Mood Lifters is that it’s peer-led – so the people who are running the graduate students actually are graduate students.”
Davre said the program taught her about self-efficacy, and the program’s clinical skills empowered her as an individual.
“Instead of just relying on other people for help, I was expected to implement the tools I was taught in my daily life,” Davre said. “You’re able to achieve your goals without someone looking over your shoulder – that helped me feel grounded in a time of uncertainty.”
The study also extends beyond the 12 weeks, providing follow-up surveys after one and six months. The program is also cumulative, which helps ensure healthy habits persist after it is completed.
“Week one is behavioral activation, so ideally, you do it five times, you come back, the next week, we check-in, and then the next week we talk about sleep,” Prakash said. “So then after we talk about sleep, we send you home and we’re like, ‘Okay, practice good sleep habits.’ But I still want you to keep earning those behavior points too at the same time.”
Participants are also allowed to repeat the program as many times as they want, depending on different life circumstances, Deldin said. Since the program is less than 15 dollars a week (and free to grad students), it’s easily affordable to redo. Mood Lifters also offers an “Infinity Program” where they continue teaching something new once a month to their participants, according to Deldin.
“We’ve had someone go five or six times because they want to really reinforce the habits,” Deldin said. “The way depression works for most people is that it’s episodic, it comes back. So what we want people to have is the resources to do it on their own.”
At the end of the day, Prakash hopes that the program will allow people with mental illnesses to have a safe space to get help.
“My big fear is that there is just this group of people who are suffering, and they’re kind of hiding their suffering,” Prakash said. “And I worry that a portion of this group has just gotten used to living like that, thinking that it’s a normal level of functioning. I hope that we can kind of pull them out of hiding and tell them you don’t have to keep living like this.”