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“Students Looking Out For Students”: University of Cumbia and Lancaster University Offer Occupational Therapy Placements

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Over the past three years the University of Cumbria and Lancaster University have been offering Occupational Therapy students the opportunity to work within the Interdisciplinary Counselling and Mental Health (ICMH) Team on placements. Julian Morris, Lancaster University’s Mental Health Advisor, has been supervising the program alongside University of Cumbria Occupational Therapy Lecturer, Bel Youngson. The program was initially piloted back in September 2019, led by two Cumbia students offering an eight week occupational therapy service but since then it has grown from strength to strength, offering students a safe space to talk about difficulties they’re facing and develop strategies to make everyday life more manageable. Occupational Therapy within universities is a fairly recent development with only a few other programs running in Ireland as well as North America but the benefits of Occupational Therapy are unprecedented with it’s unique focus on “doing” as both the means and ends of actions to bring about change in “human connection and occupational engagement”.

Taking a closer look into the evolution of such a unique well-being program within the university, SCAN reached out to both Bel Youngson and Julian Morris for further details in both the program’s development and it’s past year during the pandemic. As previously mentioned the program was initially piloted in September 2019 with the focus being on social anxiety, the transition to university and understanding/appreciating a sense of self. This initial phase of the program had a degree of physical interaction with the program engaging with students through shopping trips, outings to places that may cause anxiety and even creative therapy. With this initial pilot being successful, the program ran again the following year with two third year BSc Occupational Therapy students, Janet Regan and Debbie Mahoney alongside first year MSc student, Abbie Pearson. This stage of the program brought about the introduction of the OBCD framework. OBCD – Occupation Based Community Development, is a value based practice that places “doing” and collaboration at the centre of the process. OBCD was first developed in South Africa where many students were marginalized and assumed to fail, this model allowed the people to collaboratively address issues and strategize solutions, for example, the introduction of homework clubs. With this in mind, it’s obvious why this approach was adopted by the program as it encourages students to solve their own issues in a sustainable manner instead of being told what will help; this framework also opens the door to groupwork which has been the program’s focus for the last year.

Despite the limitations the pandemic has presented, this year’s placement still went ahead with BSc Occupational Therapy students, Anna Laurence and Sarah Johnson conducting their placement over Microsoft Teams. Their primary focus has been group work; working closely with eight individuals, Anna and Sarah have held weekly drop in meetings as well as follow up meetings that have been very successful. After speaking with both Anna and Sarah it was clear there were obstacles with the placement having to be online especially the fact that over Microsoft Teams it was difficult to engage with behavioural/physical wellbeing with most students choosing to turn cameras off. However, the placement was still a success with every discussion point always being brought back to the students so they could answer their own questions. Anna also noted that, the atmosphere in every meeting was very relaxed with no awkward pauses during discussions and even after meetings, students were giving positive feedback. The future of the program is looking very bright with Julian Morris confirming plans for further placements in the coming years; with so much progress already made, it’s great to see it flourish. Not only does this program do a great service to the wellbeing team here at Lancaster University but it also allows Occupational Therapy students invaluable experience in the field which is wonderful to see.

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