“The pandemic has had an impact on us all, on the things we need and love to do”

While the pandemic has seen a surge in demand for mental health services – Occupational Therapy students in Sunderland are providing a vital lifeline for those in need of support.

As part of their degree at the University of Sunderland, Occupational Therapy students must complete 1,000 hours of clinical placements.  First year students are currently preparing for their first placement which is towards the end of this academic year.

Recognising an urgent demand for services in the mental health sector, and wanting to create ways for students to develop their skills and support the local population, academics designed a project which met both needs.

Working with North East-based charity Mental Health Concern (MHC), two students now spend every Friday in a dedicated room on campus, speaking to clients via telephone, supporting them through difficult situations in a bid to prevent a mental health crisis.

Emma Taylor and Courtney Pratt work with the same patients each week and can tap into MHC policies, procedures and systems, and benefit from the charity’s training programmes at the same time as being fully supported by the team from MHC.

Emma, 45, from Sunderland, says she got involved with the project as she wanted the experience of putting skills learned from the course into practice.

“I have a genuine interest in mental health,” she says. “This is an amazing opportunity to work with people to support their mental health in a professional capacity. This will further support me with my future work placements within the course “

Describing the support she provides, Emma says: “I work as part of a team to manage my own caseload to interact and provide support for my clients, working independently to complete assessments and support clients.  I also signpost the clients to additional services.

“I have enjoyed the experience and the highlights have been developing relationships with clients in which they openly share details of their life events and difficulties. Being able to listen to my clients and find out what is important to them in order to support them to make positive changes has been a particular highlight.”

Occupational Therapy Senior Lecturer, Nina Bedding, who pulled together the project, also attends the Friday sessions to offer instant support and guidance to the students on site whenever they need it. She says: “This is a fantastic opportunity for students to develop their skills in a supported environment, getting that crucial real-world experience.

“Instead of learning in a simulated situation, or through role play they are dealing with the public and real-life referrals that come in. It is preparing them for the kind of challenges they would face once they begin work; this is an important experience that they are getting very early in their training. They are also supporting MHC at a time when the charity is increasingly busy, due to the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on people’s mental health. We are all delighted with the impact the project is having and excited to develop the Telehealth room at the university further.”

There are plans to increase the Friday sessions in May, to include up to four students on placement full-time for six weeks.

Emma Chambers, Team lead for Together in a Crisis at MHC, says: “It has been an honour to be able to support University of Sunderland students at a time of such uncertainty. The pandemic has had an impact on us all, on the things we need and love to do. This project has brought our provisions together and enabled us to showcase our adaptability and prove we can still thrive, even during such adversity.

“The students have worked remotely from their telehealth hub yet via technology, have integrated into our crisis response service with ease.

“The project has allowed students to draw on their existing occupational therapy skills to problem solve, validate, listen, and support but has also exposed them to real-life challenges, giving insight into client need, during social and practical difficulties. We have already witnessed a shift in student confidence and ability, when working with complex client scenarios, in just a few short weeks.”

She added: “Our community services welcome real-life, lived experience and support our staff to develop and nurture the skills needed to succeed in their role. We embrace the opportunity to offer this growth to students and look towards future collaboration with excitement and ambition.”