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Creative during COVID: Occupational Therapy students find new ways to learn and contribute during the pandemic

Group Picture

Chris McWilliam and Aly Pickard-Tattrie Bottom row: Joslin Holt (contributed)

By Derek Blois

Students from all programs have been impacted in one way or another by COVID-19.

Whether it’s the shift to online classes, employment or work placements, they all had to adapt to the new normal to meet their goals.

Joslin Holt and Aly Pickard-Tattrie are recent graduates of the Master of Science, Occupational Therapy Program at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

During the last two semesters of their program, they had to complete a fieldwork placement and their final classes to wrap up their degree. Then COVID-19 hit and shifted everything.

Before they knew it, health care organizations canceled fieldwork placements to keep patients, staff and learners safe, and students were asked to go home.

Pickard-Tattrie had an extra challenge: she was completing her placement in India when the news hit. This meant she had to pack up and fly home immediately while having no clue what would happen next.

“We were called home and off placement before Canada went into lockdown,” said Pickard-Tattrie. “We were concerned about getting out of the country in 24 hours while also worrying about the fact that there weren’t alternative placements set up for us at all yet.”

Although Holt did not have the added pressure of trying to return home from an overseas placement, the uncertainty of the situation and how it would affect her final requirements to graduate had a significant impact.

“For me, it was very disappointing, we were so close to being done school and knowing they were being changed or cancelled, it was unsettling at first because we didn’t know what was happening,” said Holt.

Thankfully for Holt, Pickard-Tattrie and another occupational therapy student, they were invited by their preceptor, occupational therapist Chris McWilliam, to participate in and lead parts of a comprehensive project that fulfilled the fieldwork requirements.

McWilliam is the occupational therapy professional practice lead for Nova Scotia Health's Mental Health and Addictions Program in Central Zone. He is also a frontline clinician in one of the busiest Community Mental Health and Addictions clinics in Halifax Regional Municipality.

Occupational therapists help people to solve problems that interfere with their ability to do things that they want, need or have to do in their life such as self-care, productivity like work or school and leisure activities.

They are trained to understand not only the medical and physical limitations of a disability or injury but also the psychosocial factors that affect the functioning of the whole person, including their mental health.

McWilliam knew the students could benefit from the wisdom and experience of his occupational therapy colleagues across Nova Scotia.

By organizing the students to conduct a scan of the variation in roles of occupational therapists across Nova Scotia, they could learn firsthand about the positive impact clinicians of this profession make every day in the lives of people living with mental disorders, including addictions.

The students were required to interview occupational therapists in the Mental Health and Addictions Program in all four zones and report back on their findings.

Throughout this project, the students reached out to 76 occupational therapy professionals across the province. In total, 50 occupational therapists and five occupational therapy assistants agreed to an interview.

“It’s a great response rate since they were one-hour interviews. They want to be connected, and they were excited to talk to us about their issues to help solve them and advocate for mental health,” said Pickard-Tattrie. “This was also important to us as new grads because now we have this new network of 45 occupational therapists working in mental health, which I could approach again about my new role in mental health and discuss it with them.”

The project gave the students a more in-depth knowledge of the programs within occupational therapy and mental health and addictions and what other occupational therapists are doing in Nova Scotia.

Speaking to so many people working in the field was a valuable networking experience for Pickard-Tattrie and Holt.

Both Pickard-Tattrie and Holt wanted to work in mental health before the project, but completing it has reinforced their decision.

They both discovered while completing the project that occupational therapists are well-positioned to break down barriers in the system while helping their clients function the best that they can.

“If you can no longer do an activity due to disease, illness, disorder, whether it’s a broken arm, a stroke, or schizophrenia, if anything is hindering your ability to do what you need to do, an OT comes into work with you,” explained Pickard-Tattrie. “They will work to change how you do the activity, remediating you physically, mentally or neurologically to re-engage with the activity, or we change the environment you’re doing it in.”

They also benefitted from working on the project together as they could reflect and discuss what they learned while interviewing the occupational therapists.

The students would talk about their learnings in their weekly meetings and would help each other compare and understand the information.

Holt and Pickard-Tattrie are not the only students who have faced swift changes in their program due to COVID-19, but they made the most of the situation.

Both Holt and Pickard-Tattrie had advice for other students in similar circumstances: “One of the biggest things that helped me to continue to stay positive with the change to a project-based placement was to think about how the work I was doing could translate to important skills used in a clinical setting where interacting with clients occurs,” said Holt.

“This is the situation now, and it’s not going to change, so embrace what you’re given and try to make the most of it!” added Pickard-Tattrie. “Reframe your mindset, learn what you can, and be creative. Be open to new ways to reach your own learning goals and offer them to your preceptor. They are very receptive to feedback, and if there are things you need, they will help you do it.”