In 2021, Mood Lifters was launched by University of Michigan faculty as a mental wellness program promoting peer-led group therapy sessions that guide participants through a variety of coping strategies and skills. The program, which operates under the University’s Exploration of Psychopathy in Clinical Science lab, has conducted multiple studies about mental health practices among different demographics, including students, athletes and parents of children in palliative care. In August 2021, Mood Lifters became available to U-M graduate students between the ages of 22 and 32 years old. Two years later, on Aug. 1, 2023, the EPICS lab launched its first program specifically targeting undergraduate students, from ages 18 to 22.
Rackham student Elena Pokowitz works in the EPICS lab and does research on the efficacy and impact of different group therapy models through Mood Lifters. Pokowitz serves as the primary investigator for the new undergraduate study. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, she said the program is scheduled to meet virtually once a week for 14 weeks.
The new study strives to provide accessible mental health services to the undergraduate population at the University. According to Pokowitz, the Mood Lifters group therapy model was created to maximize accessibility while minimizing costs by utilizing peer leaders.
“We give people a chance to work on their mental wellness as a group to learn that they’re not alone in what they’re feeling, that they shouldn’t feel isolated,” Pokowitz said. “Mood Lifters, in general, was built to be sort of an accessible, low-cost program, and that is why we chose to use peer leaders. … We actually found in an initial randomized control trial that peer leaders were just as effective as trained, licensed psychologists.”
LSA junior Sophia Oprandi is a data analysis researcher on the undergraduate Mood Lifters project. Oprandi said the project aims to bring students together from similar backgrounds who might be facing the same challenges in their academic and personal lives.
“From my point of view, it’s a lot easier to talk to someone who has struggled the same struggle as you, fought the same fight as you, and ended up in the same place as you,” Oprandi said.
Mood Lifters utilizes research from cognitive behavior therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy, according to Pokowitz. The new undergraduate program has been adapted from Mood Lifters’ adult programming to be specifically tailored to the unique needs of participating students.
“The way that we approach the content is a little bit more geared towards young people who are in school and don’t want their weekly group therapy sessions to be like another class,” Pokowitz said. “We also have some topics that we specifically put in for undergraduates. For example, we have a whole meeting on procrastination.”
LSA senior Dennis Planaj is a Mood Lifters undergraduate peer leader. Planaj said his role involves facilitating discussions with undergraduate participants and guiding them through a variety of mental health and mindfulness exercises to help them find the strategies that work best for them.
“A lot of (the program) is catered around giving the student a lot of different information and techniques, research skills, but they are sort of allowed to use what they think will work for them,” Planaj said. “For the most part, (the role of peer leader involves) going through the material, answering any questions they might have, (and) being a discussion leader.”
Neema Prakash, Rackham student and 2021 alum, said hopes Mood Lifters can be a good alternative for students who might have trouble accessing campus or other professional mental health resources at the moment.
“I know how hard it is to get into CAPS,” Prakash said. “There aren’t that many resources for undergrads. I’m hoping that this is a resource for people who either can’t afford therapy right now, or their insurance isn’t letting them get therapy or they don’t have a diagnosis.”
As an out-of-state student, Oprandi said it can be challenging to acclimate to new mental healthcare spaces and professionals after moving. She said the Mood Lifters program was a great way to look after her mental health in a low-stress way.
“I think a lot of times it’s harder to find a therapist in a new state (and) to find a support system in a new state,” Oprandi said. “It was really nice to be able to find a group of people who could support me.”
Prakash said a Mood Lifters study for undergraduates specifically is necessary because the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and increased exposure to news and mass shootings have created unique mental health struggles for undergraduate students.
“The kind of stressors and the kind of experiences that I think undergrads now are growing up with are unparalleled,” Prakash said. “The kind of news and exposures that you guys are having on a daily basis (and) COVID is unique, and we don’t quite know what the effects are going to be.”
Oprandi emphasized the benefit of having a support system of peers who understand one’s unique mental health challenges.
“It’s nice to have an undergraduate group of people who have similar struggles,” Oprandi said.
Daily Staff Reporter Joanna Chait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.