Story by Katie Townsend
“I am passionate about the opportunities to work in the mental health field,” says CSU occupational therapy student Tina Swearinger. “I feel that mental health can often be overlooked because we don’t always see the immediate effects of it, and the deficits that it can cause, in all areas of life.”
While mental health is an important part of occupational therapy and is interwoven across OT practice settings, a very small percentage of occupational therapists work in mental health facilities.
For some, mental health may conjure up images of institutions, but the real-life experience of working in mental health can be very different, especially if viewed through the eyes of an occupational therapy student like Swearinger.
During a recent summer fieldwork placement, she ventured onto a road less traveled for her first level II fieldwork experience, working at a state-funded mental and behavioral health facility with adult day programming. At the facility, she took on a caseload of residents with a primary diagnosis of intellectual disabilities as well as secondary diagnoses of various mental health disorders and/or physical disabilities. A significant part of her caseload included adult male sex offenders participating in sex offense rehabilitation.
‘Every day was different’
“One of the best parts about this placement was that every day was different,” Swearinger says. “Mental health symptoms manifest differently in each person, and therefore makes treatment more individualized.”
Her typical day introduced her to a variety of different intervention methods, including group therapy, individual therapy, assessments, staff training and education, and team meetings. She led a coping skills group that consisted of a specific curriculum to teach the residents how to handle situations effectively and in a way that would help them successfully reintegrate into a community placement. She planned fun activities to keep them engaged and help them practice the skills they were learning.
Level II fieldwork is an important opportunity for students to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned in the classroom while continuing to develop a professional identity as a future practitioner. Swearinger tackled this challenge head on, gaining confidence in her skills when a recommendation she made on a client’s behalf was implemented and successful.
“It was a simple moment, but it felt good knowing that I had seen the behavior and interpreted it to provide a potential solution that could help him feel better throughout the day,” Swearinger says.
To students preparing for their first or second fieldwork experience, Swearinger recommends, “Step out of your comfort zone. When asked if you want to try something, a new treatment or assessment, say yes. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Your educator is a wealth of knowledge and experience and can be an amazing resource.”
Occupational therapy’s roots are deeply embedded in mental health, and there is a movement to get back to those origins. Given her fieldwork experience, Swearinger is well on her way to helping expand the occupational therapist’s role in the mental health field.