When we first invited NAMI members to present to our Master of Occupational Therapy students at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences, it was to speak on a panel about their personal experiences. Presently, Members from NAMI Jacksonville (Fla.) continue to come three times a year to present to our students. From what our students share, hearing their experiences is a valuable, eye-opening experience, but as instructors, we knew we could do more.
Occupational therapists (OTs) practice in a variety of settings, including community centers, health care facilities, after-school programs and an array of workplaces. These familiar locations are settings where people affected by mental illness are active participants or consumers. In these environments, OTs help people address barriers by enhancing their existing skills, remediating or restoring skills, promoting wellness and modifying an environment or activity to maximize engagement in meaningful and everyday activities. Through their collaborative work, OTs help people reduce stigma, increase safety and achieve success in the workplace through client-driven interventions. Occupational therapy is a vital profession that helps individuals develop skills to live life to the fullest.
That’s why we began inviting members of NAMI St. Johns County into our classroom for immersive experiences. Eight or so NAMI members volunteer to join us twice during a trimester. During the first visit, small groups of students meet with the client-volunteer. Over the next week or two, students develop a mock treatment plan for each client-volunteer, which faculty members carefully review. When the NAMI volunteers return, students explain and implement their plans by offering examples, techniques and strategies to address the areas identified in collaboration with the students as a concern or need by the client-volunteers. The students design and implement an individual intervention session, which addresses, improves, develops or modifies skills or tasks identified by the client-volunteers as areas they would like to work on.
For example, one volunteer had a lot of anxiety but no successful coping strategies. Students recommended she write a positive note every morning and place it in a jar. In the evening, she would read the note and reflect on her day. She shared that this simple task has transformed how she views her day-to-day experiences and has helped her be more successful in addressing the effects of anxiety.
All of the volunteers we have met are very open and helpful. They challenge our students, but are sensitive to the fact that they are still students and not yet experts. They listen respectfully as students ask questions during their first visit. Their encouragement helps our students learn more quickly. The client-volunteers and students truly collaborate throughout these experiences.
Although receiving the students’ recommendations is technically where the volunteer commitment ends, we receive a lot of positive feedback from NAMI members. Many let us know that they use the strategies our students recommend.
Sessions like these give our students much-needed confidence as future entry-level occupational therapists. Students learn that they can’t read from a script—they must focus on the client and build rapport. They are practicing essential skills, becoming better interviewers who are observant and time efficient in a safe environment while receiving immediate feedback from the client-volunteers and their faculty members. The commitment of the NAMI members has strengthened our program by providing students real-world experiences early in their career development.
Everyone at NAMI has the opportunity to partner with local universities. Whether you want to contribute by joining a panel or a mock intervention, we’ve outlined a few ways you can set up similar partnerships in your community:
- Find local programs. Research occupational therapy programs at local universities and colleges. There is a list on the website of the American Occupational Therapy Association. Contact the program chair to ask how you can participate.
- Introduce yourself. Explain that you’re a NAMI member and ask how you can share your experiences with students. Suggest a panel discussion or mock treatment session. Share how you can help educate students by describing your experiences.
- Meet with key faculty members. Have an in-depth conversation about what to expect when you visit the classroom. Be sure all NAMI members are aware it’s a meaningful volunteer experience and an opportunity to give back. The experience is a win-win for all involved.
- Close the feedback loop. Make it easy for members who participated to offer their comments or learn how to volunteer for another opportunity. Share the experience with others and invite their participation.
Occupational therapists play a vital role in the treatment of individuals affected by mental illness. It’s our hope that through this collaborative relationship with NAMI, our students are better prepared for their daily work as practitioners.
Dr. Sheri Montgomery, OTD, OTR/L, and Inti Marazita, MS, OTR/L, are faculty members in the Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) program at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences.