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OSH attracts occupational therapists from across the country

Thursday, March 28, 2024

​Future occupational therapists seek out Oregon State Hospital as a source of invaluable training that is unavailable in so many other parts of the country.

“We're becoming known on a national level because we are one of the few places left in the nation that is an inpatient psychiatric hospital with occupational therapists working to help with symptom management and independent living skills," said Sara Pickett, OSH's Occupational Therapy program internship coordinator.

This year, a total of 11 occupational therapy students will complete their clinical experiences as part of their journey to earn a degree in the field and become licensed. Occupational therapy is one of the many therapies available to patients at OSH and it focuses on helping people develop skills that can help them with tasks and functions that occupy our daily lives.

“Occupational therapy has its roots in mental health, so that connection attracts many who are directly interested in working in behavioral health," said Pickett, who coordinates with 11 schools across the country to place interns at OSH. “Almost everybody leaves with a better appreciation of behavioral health and wanting somehow to involve behavioral health in their own practice."

By the time interns complete their clinical experience at OSH they will have gained experience planning and leading group therapy sessions, one-on-one sessions, completing cognitive, sensory-based and living skills assessments and helping with patient discharge planning.

It all builds upon their experiences to learn how to apply their training in different clinical settings and through the lens of behavioral health care.

“Completing assessments with patients has allowed me to better understand what they may not be able to tell me themselves verbally and helps me build a therapeutic relationship," said Clarissa Benzarti, an occupational therapy student at Florida's Nova Southeastern University.

At OSH, occupational therapists help patients with functional living skills for their time in the hospital and to prepare them to return to the community. Those living skills could range from cooking and household management to developing social or emotion regulation skills that will help them fully participate in their treatment at the hospital.

“We consider occupations as anything you do to 'occupy your time.' The idea of thinking about everything you do from the moment you wake up in the morning to bedtime. What are the things you are expected to do and what you want to do to make your life meaningful? Our goal is to help you be independent in those areas of “occupations" for daily living," explained Janelle Sheehan, director of the OSH Occupational and Physical Therapy program.

While the internship program collaborates with schools across the country, it began more than 30 years ago and for many years supported the only occupational therapy program in Oregon at the time – Pacific University. Now, two more schools will soon start occupational therapy doctorate programs in the fall:  Western Oregon University and George Fox University.

The hospital also offers clinical training opportunities in other therapeutic practices, psychiatry, social work, nursing, psychology and other related fields. Its role as a teaching hospital is important to continue offering expertise and support in building a strong behavioral health workforce in the state, Sheehan said. She and Pickett both interned at OSH before launching their OT careers and Sheehan has seen the internship program continue to help the hospital fill vacancies. There are currently 23 occupational therapists between both campuses and five positions are currently vacant.

After graduation, Pacific University intern Jena Suzuki plans to return to her home in Hawaii. While she's uncertain if her career will be in a psychiatric setting, she said her experiences working with patients at OSH have given her the tools to be more comprehensive in her patient care by supporting mental health needs.

“Mental health touches on everything," Suzuki said. “Even in the physical rehab setting I was in for my last clinical experience; you see clients' emotions with having an injury or disability. It's a lot of frustrations that come with needing physical or occupational therapy no matter the setting. I've learned more here about how to empathize, affirm, acknowledge and collaborate to move forward with their goals and how to support them both mentally and physically."

The experience has also been an opportunity to see the impact of OT in a behavioral health setting when there is often a heavy emphasis in education programs on its relationship to physical therapy, said Tyler Russo, who like Benzarti is an intern attending Nova Southeastern University.

“I saw this as an opportunity to come to a place where OT is at the forefront of mental health treatment," Russo said. “This experience has allowed us to work with different populations and understand that in terms of mental health, you see all walks of life impacted and how occupational therapists support patients' mental health. There have been opportunities to sit down with some patients and understand more about them and their needs. It's been a positive experience overall."

At OSH, each patient has a treatment care plan and treatment team who work together to help a patient on their recovery goals. Occupational therapy is one of many therapies available to help patients. The impact of that interdisciplinary team approach on patient care doesn't go unnoticed.

“There are so many other disciplines that I've seen here and haven't seen or worked with before – music, recreation, art. To see how other disciplines work and build relationships with clients has been a great experience," Suzuki said.

Seeing that therapeutic collaboration in action has added to their clinical experience, Benzarti said.

“The hospital has been so amazing with collaboration within the interdisciplinary teams. You see firsthand how they work off one another and communicate. It's been a great learning experience in that aspect, too," Benzarti said. “I've been in other settings where there is a disconnect, and while there may be difficulties, you see there is an effort to have everyone on the same page to give the patient the most effective and appropriate care. Everyone has the patients' best interest in mind to get the best outcome."



OSH occupational therapy interns (left to right) Jena Suzuki, Clarissa Benzarti and Tyler Russo

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