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MedLINKS student volunteers guide peers to health resources

MedLINKS, the Medical Department's program of students linking students to medical resources, involves about 100 students in outreach activities that range from alcohol education to organized study breaks and topical dramas performed by MedLINKS's theatrical wing, Up Front.

Based on a proactive model of community health education, MedLINKS trains volunteers to assess the health needs in their living groups and to respond to individual students' questions about health or medical problems.

President Charles M. Vest recently commended the MedLINKS program to the media as an example of the Institute's commitment to alcohol education. Founded in 1993 by Tracy Desovich, MIT Medical's health educator for students, MedLINKS is part of the Health Education Service.

Commenting on MedLINKS's ongoing program of alcohol education, Ms. Desovich, who has a master's degree in public health, noted that peer pressure to drink or use drugs can be powerful. This is especially so within small groups, where it can look like "everybody's doing it," she said.

Yet from a community health perspective, Ms. Desovich added, recent research shows that the "social norms approach" to challenges such as binge drinking can change campus culture.

"Basically, the message that works is to teach and reassure students that binge drinking, for example, is not the norm. 'Everybody' is not doing it--not all Greeks, not all dorms, not all college students," Ms. Desovich said.

A comprehensive alcohol survey done in 1995 with MIT students showed that 25 percent binge-drink, or approximately 1,000 studnets. "Although this is higher than we would like--any binge drinking on campus is risky--it's low compared to national statistics. Binge-drinking consequences, however, have a ripple effect on other students, including those who are not drinking. That's why the whole community has to respond to it," Ms. Desovich said.

MedLINKS opened officially in 1993 with Ms. Desovich's first e-mail--an invitation to premed students to participate in training to connect fellow students to needed health and medical resources.

"I sent it out at 4:30 in the afternoon. By 5:00, I had a whole group saying 'yes!'" she recalled.

Ms. Desovich says she was pleasantly surprised by the students' enthusiasm during MedLINKS' first year.

"These were students coping with lots of demands," she said. Yet they were undaunted by the training program, which today entails about 20 hours over a nine-week period. At the end of it, a MedLINK can "hang out a shingle in their living group," meaning he or she can represent the Medical Department by acting as a sounding board for students with concerns ranging from head colds to homesickness to use and abuse of alcohol and other drugs.

MedLINKS's mission--to promote healthy behaviors throughout the MIT community--also gives volunteers an opportunity to make a difference.

"It's friends helping friends, peers helping peers," Ms. Desovich said. "In an international, multicultural community, these connections are important."

MedLINK volunteer Susan Rushing, a junior in brain and cognitive sciences, described her participation as "adding a unique element to my MIT experience. By sharing the knowledge I gained through MedLINKS, I could help others find the help they needed in the Medical Department or in simply getting answers to questions they did not feel comfortable discussing with medical professionals.

"I would like to see MIT require that every dorm and living group have at least one trained MedLINK," Ms. Rushing said. "It makes everyone feel more secure if there's someone you can depend on to help out when a crisis arises, especially in the sorority and fraternity houses, which don't have live-in tutors."

The job of MedLINKS volunteers is not to solve anyone's problems or fix anyone's life, Ms. Desovich. "It's to be a sounding board, not a psychiatrist. It's to direct their friends and fellow students to the right resource. It's also, definitely, to know their own limits as community helpers. After all, MedLINKS [volunteers] are students, too."

Communicating the MedLINKS message on a diverse campus takes both sensitivity and creativity, Ms. Desovich noted. Another challenge to health education at MIT in general and to MedLINKS in particular, she added, is overcoming students' isolation.

"Sometimes it's pride. Sometimes it's fear. Sometimes it's cultural differences that make it hard to reach out. But all three add to the amount of stress that students put on themselves here," said Ms. Desovich. "I'll hear students say, 'I'm a failure if I ask for help. I'll let down my family or peers if I let people know I'm having a hard time. Besides, I can solve anything myself. I'm at MIT!' Students often think they're supposed to do it all and know it all, from thesis-writing to intimacy. It's a huge burden."

Since January 1993, the program has expanded from 18 to 100 student participants. Veterans attend monthly continuing education sessions (for example, on dating violence or eating disorders), and each fall and over IAP, a new group of students signs up for the training and to participate in MedLINKS programs.

The September 1997 MedLINKS newsletter, NewsLINKS, announced an ambitious fall lineup, including the reopening of MedSTOP, a health pamphlet supply on the fifth floor of the Stratton Student Center; a reborn MedLINK home page; updated MedLINK resource books, with new articles on abstinence, asthma, and body art and piercing; and a list of medical consultants who have agreed to serve as MedLINKS resources on specific topics.

A new MedLINKS program, Project ACT, also started up this fall. Project ACT (Assess, Create, Trigger) is a program that guides MedLINKS students in assessing the health needs and interests in their own living group, creating a program to respond to those needs, and "triggering" or getting people to repeat and use the information they've learned.

Up Front is MedLINKS's dramatic side. Students involved in Up Front create topical dramas, either at the request of a tutor or a housemaster or a MedLINK volunteer whose living group is interested in a particular issue. Participants rehearse on Monday evenings.

MedLINKS can be reached at x3-1316.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 8, 1997.

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