During Mental Health Awareness Month this May, we’re taking a look at the ways in which our students, faculty, and community serve others in need and support each other.

For this month’s IHP Interview, we sat down with Dr. Mary Beth Kadlec, Assistant Professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy, who developed and now runs a virtual Occupational Therapy Monthly Mentorship Circle for Collaborative Connection through the IHP. This offering is supported by a grant from Mass General Brigham to the Department of Occupational Therapy that specifically targets OTPs (occupational therapy practitioners) in Massachusetts working in or providing services to those with behavioral health and mental health needs. The program supports OTPs who provide behavioral health and mental health services in different settings for individuals, families, and communities across the lifespan.

While these OTPs offer their services to others, they also need support and connection of their own as they engage in very important work that comes with stressors, often being the only OTP or the contributions of occupational therapy are not well understood in the practice settings.

The development of these groups included conducting an informal needs assessment by interviewing faculty from the IHP Department of Occupational Therapy and various stakeholders in the occupational therapy community, from Directors of Inpatient Services to OTP mentors and colleagues working in school and community settings. One IHP colleague, Dr. Midge Hobbs, Assistant Professor, Department of Occupational Therapy, and IMPACT Practice Curriculum Director, Interprofessional Education and Practice, has been instrumental in the development and support of the “collaborative connection” approach to the mentorship groups and supporting student participation.

OTPs are known for assisting patients in their goals of returning to life activities, but OTPs are also trained to address behavioral and mental health. Many may not be aware of this. Talk about that.

OTPs are trained in designing and implementing ways for individuals and groups of individuals to engage in meaningful and purposeful occupations and activities in their lives. As OTPs, we have the skills to help people with mental health and behavioral health challenges to better understand how their abilities can be harnessed to support successful engagement through learning ways to manage emotional regulation, communicate more effectively, and participation in meaningful activities. Often the individuals we work with have differing co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses (for example, anxiety, depression, psychosis, ADHD), levels of cognitive abilities (neurodevelopmental and intellectual differences), language development, information processing skills and sensory processing abilities that mental health practitioners in other fields may not be able to identify. Our patients and clients may be more prone to severe dysregulation within the context of participating in different activities within different settings so it can be difficult for non-OTPs to assess a situation and know best how to resolve it.

How we approach these situations differs. Sometimes, it can change the way we interact by matching what we say to the individual’s capacity to process information when they are in an elevated state. We can develop visual supports such as writing or using pictures to better communicate with an individual. Other times, it’s about offering these individuals breaks, creating safe spaces for them and certain tools to help them calm down, like a weighted blanket or fidget toy, that match the needs of their mind and

body that is also critical to de-escalating a situation. And most importantly, linking their abilities and needs to meaningful engagement in their lives.

We also make recommendations for the design of spaces and group experiences for individuals as we evaluate the activities and social and physical environments in which they are expected to function.

Some of the specific behavioral health and mental health settings in which OTPs may provide services to include inpatient psychiatric units, community based acute treatment (CBAT), outpatient clinics, school systems, residential facilities, foster care, early intervention programs, and mobile crisis intervention teams.

For OTPs who provide behavioral health or mental health services, what is their need for support from groups like this one?

We’ve heard from OTPs across the board that they are seeking support through connection. Many OTPs work independently, meaning they may not have support from others in their field on a day-to-day basis. This need for connection has been unmet for years and was exacerbated by COVID-19. Because of the isolation of OTPs working in these settings, it’s important that they feel connected to other clinicians in similar situations. There was clearly a need to connect with others in this specific area of OT practice and to learn alternative strategies for managing challenges in clinical settings, as well as how other clinicians practice self-care, manage stress, and build resilience.

How do the groups work?

Each month, the OTPs identify a topic to discuss in the following month’s meeting. Some topics we’ve covered include sensory processing disorders/differences, mentorship models, and trauma informed practice. Our next meeting will focus on advocating for OT services within our settings.

The fact that we select these topics with the wider group, rather than just the administrators, allows all participants to play an active role. Not only can they voice their own needs about what they’d like to discuss, they often co-facilitate the groups as well. I hold the space, organize the meetings, and handle the administrative tasks, but the meaningful conversations come from our participants.

Logistically, we begin the group with introductions, allowing each participant to share with the group where they are employed or situated. Then, the co-facilitators provide an overview of the topic followed by the entire group separated into breakout rooms with no more than 4 participants. We repeatedly receive feedback that they are seeking opportunities to connect collaboratively, which is most successful with smaller groups. There is a good balance within each meeting for sharing of information and connection. Before we end the session, the group members decide on the topic for the next meeting.

Who attends the group? Is it primarily new OTPs, experienced OTPs, students, or a combination?

We’ve had a wide range of OTPs from different areas of practice join us in the group. Some are current IHP occupational therapy doctoral students, recent graduates, or current practitioners, and some are even retired or partially retired. We are open to all in the Massachusetts OT community.

The group has grown because of the power of the connection built within our community. Many attendees tell their colleagues and peers about the group, and with this, attendance has steadily

increased. Because the group is open to those within and beyond the IHP community in Massachusetts, we aim to have as broad an impact as possible.

Why do you feel this group is so important?

It’s important that we better advocate for OT services and educate the individuals, families, and communities that we work with about what we can do and what needs we can meet. Groups like these help us own the work we do and support those of us doing this work each and every day.

Support for each other is also incredibly important. Given that OTPs often work alone – and I have done so myself – it can be isolating and challenging to find allies in the workplace. Not only must we address the behavioral and mental health of those we work with, but we must also collaborate with OTPs to take care of our own mental health and well-being.

The support we receive from people in your profession helps to move the needle and is very critical for OTPs to feel truly seen, heard, and valued.

What feedback have you received from participants?

There’s no doubt the mentorship circles have been impactful for OTPs thus far. As one participant shared:

“As a new grad OT and one of two OTs at my workplace, it was beneficial to hear from OTs who have a lot of experience in this field. I felt encouraged to hear what others are doing and learn from them.”

Other attendees echoed this sentiment, noting that the learning opportunities the group provided were invaluable and the smaller breakout group discussions were meaningful. Others were appreciative of the wide variety of participant experience levels and the collaboration that came with the discussions themselves.

What’s next?

The group will host its fifth meeting in June and continue through September. The IHP is constantly expanding the ways in which it supports the mental health of students, faculty, and the wider professional community. Our hope is that a future grant funder will see the potential in this model and support its ongoing work.

While supporting those with mental and behavioral health conditions can be challenging, support groups and mentorship circles like this one are critical to cultivating collaborative connection and meaning among the OTPs working in such settings, so they can continue their important work.

Do you have a story the Office of Strategic Communications should know about? If so, email ihposc [at] mghihp.edu