Empowering Mental Health Support for USU Students: IfYou'reReadingThis at USU

"IfYou'reReadingThis at USU" is a mental health support initiative at the Uniformed Services University (USU) that collects personal letters to help medical students navigate the challenges of their education, fostering a community of support and promoting mental health and wellness.

USU students wrote messages of support during the annual USU Connections Fair. (Photo credit: Courtesy of ENS Amber Barak, USU)
USU students wrote messages of support during the annual USU Connections Fair. (Photo courtesy of
ENS Amber Barak, USU)

September 12, 2023 by Vivian Mason

In the demanding world of military medical education, every student faces their share of challenges and adversity. Life's journey often has obstacles, and it's essential to recognize resilience in navigating these difficulties.

Ensign Amber Barak
"Fitness is integral to my well-being, but it's also
very empowering to show my children that a
person can be strong and authentically vulnerable.
- Ensign Amber Barak (Photo credit: ENS Amber
At the Uniformed Services University (USU), a valuable mental health resource known as “IfYou’reReadingThis at USU” stands as a beacon of support. This initiative is a collection of personal letters written by supportive friends, peers, faculty, and colleagues. These letters address mental health issues, validate the common stressors faced during medical education, and encourage students to seek help when needed.

Navy Ensign Amber Barak, a third-year medical student and president of the USU chapter of IfYou’reReadingThis, emphasizes that the mission of program is “to serve as an open-ended, university-wide support network to help students struggling with anxiety, depression, burnout, imposter syndrome, and the very normal stressors that come with medical training.”

Furthermore, Barak explains, “Our hope is to help students feel comfortable talking to someone by providing a forum for individuals to share their experiences and by showing an outpouring of love, understanding, and support.” 

Navy Ensign (Dr.) Allison Duncan helped start the program at USU in 2021 as a third-year medical student. Barak got involved when the Office of Student Affairs asked for student volunteers to take over the program. 

“I’m the wellness representative for the class of 2025,” notes Barak. “I’m passionate about the wellbeing of my classmates, and I’m also involved with the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee. When the Office of Student Affairs asked…I think I was the only one who applied. It’s a platform that embraces vulnerability and that just spoke to me. I knew it was something I needed to nurture and grow at USU.”

According to Barak, the IfYou’reReadingThis national website is still relatively young, yet its impact is growing. Similar chapters are sprouting up at various colleges across the nation and are already building letter collections among students, faculty, and staff.

Due to its affiliation with the Department of Defense, Barak says the IfYou’reReadingThis at USU website operates separately, accessible only with a USU Single Sign-On account for privacy protection. Barak’s approach allows for the creation of a distinct, but closely connected community within the national organization. Drs. Nathan Keller, associate professor of Family Medicine, and Lynette Parker, assistant professor of Pathology, serve as program advisors. 

The goal for IfYoureReadingThis at USU is to accumulate a diverse collection of letters for students to browse through, relate to, and connect with. Through these letters, Barak hopes students will not only feel supported in the moment, but also know that they have a supportive community to talk to in the future.

“We want to close the gap between students with mental illness and the people who care about them,” Barak says. “This is a safe place where we can show support by using our voices to touch the lives of those around us.”

She adds, “We work really hard to get letters considering that we’re all in medical school and things are so crazy busy. The program’s really grown this past year. I’m so proud of how many letters we’ve gotten—not just individual, but group letters. It’s something we’re working on, but it’s a slow kind of growth.”

IfYou'reReadingThis at USU provided stickers with positive messages for students and staff at the annual USU Connections Fair. (Photo courtesy of ENS Amber Barak)
IfYou'reReadingThis at USU provided stickers with positive messages for students and staff at the annual
USU Connections Fair. (Photo courtesy of ENS Amber Barak)

Students in medical education often grapple with anxiety and depression, with the fear of stigma or judgment hindering them from reaching out for help. Therefore, a support network becomes a vital part of mental health, as well as professional counseling and sometimes medication. However, building this support network can be difficult, especially when students feel uneasy about whether or not they’ll be met with support and positivity. 

To address that, Barak states, “We also have a hotline and other resources available on the website in case students need those, too.”

When asked about the program’s significance for USU students, Barak responds, “I think the whole mental health and wellness faction of training for academia is something that is growing and is not going to go away. People are finally investing in themselves earlier in their academic and professional careers. Later, it’s going to help make them more successful and more resilient.”

She adds, “We’re going to see a lot of tough things in our careers. I think that by focusing on our mental health now as students and especially as future doctors, we’re going to become more well-rounded leaders and caregivers. I want my classmates to be the best doctors possible. It’s also a good way for us to look out for each other.”

Barak also commends USU for its commitment to student well-being, highlighting the role of the Wellness Dean at the University. 

“Part of the setup of our school is that we have a Wellness Dean,” Barak explains. “Dr. Kameha Bell, former assistant
dean for the Wellbeing Program, was instrumental in obtaining approval for the IfYou’reReadingThis chapter at USU. However, she retired last year. Her replacement is Dr. Daryl Thorne. This shows the important commitment that USU is making to its students, and that really sets this school apart.”

Barak is enthusiastic about helping and sharing as well. “I love wellness. I love mental health. I love therapy. I’m in therapy, and I’m all about it! Life is too short not to try and improve yourself every step of the way.”

Executive board members of IfYou’reReadingThis at USU (l to r) ENS Amber Barak, 2LT Katy Jevtich, and 2LT Joshua Rice promoting their platform  by giving out treats, wellness themed stickers, and flyers. (Not pictured are 2nd Lt. Shelbi Wuss and 2nd Lt. Racheal Lee) (Photo courtesy of ENS Amber Barak)
Executive board members of IfYou’reReadingThis at
USU (l to r) ENS Amber Barak, 2LT Katy Jevtich,
and 2LT Joshua Rice promoting their platform
 by giving out treats, wellness themed stickers, and
flyers. (Not pictured are 2nd Lt. Shelbi Wuss and 2nd
Lt. Racheal Lee) (Photo courtesy of ENS Amber Barak)
She further underscores the importance of seeking help, stating, “It’s important to be able to take a step back and say ‘I’m not doing well right now. I need help.’ I think it’s really powerful to ask for help. IfYou’reReadingThis at USU is teaching classmates and students that asking for help is very powerful because it’s going to make you a better person, a better doctor, a better friend, and a better parent.” 

Yet, at times, she says, it’s difficult to ask for help. “I think perfectionism is very prevalent in medical education, almost to a fault,” Barak admits. “For example, my perfectionism got me this far, but also at what point do you enjoy what you do, love it, and not have to be perfect at it? You’re more than a number. It’s good to remember the other great things in your life, as well as your passions.”

Letter writers are encouraged to begin their letters with “If you're reading this…” and offer positive support. These one-page submissions often include contact information, allowing readers who resonate with a particular story to reach out.

Barak encourages more leaders within the USU community to contribute letters, like those submitted by Dr. Eric Elster, dean of the School of Medicine; Dr. Catherine Kimball-Eayrs, pediatrician, prior commandant for the School of Medicine; Maj. Ryan Landoll, assistant dean for Pre-clinical Services, and Laura Baumann, assistant dean for Graduate Student Development and Support, among others. There have also been letters from students like 2nd Lt. Brandon Hillery, 2nd Lt. Katy Jevtich, and 2nd Lt. Scott Oplinger. 

For those who wish to write a letter, the program offers robust support during the writing process. “If you’re stuck writing your letter, we can help,” Barak says. “It’s not like you’re completely out there in a lurch. We’re here to support you. It can be emotionally exhausting to delve into those emotional issues, and we totally understand.”

Concluding, Barak says that IfYou’reReadingThis at USU is about fostering a community. It serves as a testament to the importance of mental health and wellness, empowering students to embrace their vulnerabilities, seek help, and ultimately become stronger, more compassionate individuals and healthcare providers.

“It’s not just letters, it’s support and love.”