I just returned from the 18th Annual Educational Leadership Conference, cohosted by the APTA Academy of Education and the American Council of Academic Physical Therapy held held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I had the opportunity to speak alongside Jason Cherry, PT, DPT, EdD on the topic of Addressing the Student Mental Health Crisis in Physical Therapy. I have some good news to share with you and some news that deeply saddens me from the weekend’s activity.
The good news is that DPT educators are listening and curious about how to address the student mental health crisis.
The unfortunate news is that by nearly every metric, DPT students mental health is worsening. The data demonstrates that stress (19%), anxiety (25%), depression (12%), and suicide behaviors (7%) are increasing in student body population.
Recent data has shown that the stress and pressure associated with physical therapy education and practice have taken a toll on the mental health of many within our profession. The challenges presented by academic demands, clinical responsibilities, post-pandemic stress, and the evolving healthcare landscape have impacted all of our mental health. Educators are asking, “How can I ease the anxiety and prevent mental illness from developing in our students?” This is a salient questions as poor mental health interferes with learning, memory, and executive function, in students with depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms.
Here are 7 actionable steps you can take today to address this issue:
#1: Support DPT Educators: DPT programs should reach out to professionals with a proven track record in improving physical therapist’s mental health. Educators have traditionally looked to psychology and counseling programs within their academic institution’s for support. This is one possible option. Unfortunately, interprofessional education and collaboration face many barriers and obstacles. This gap has left the majority of DPT educators, especially DCEs, to cope alone without skills or resources to mitigate mental illness amid the aftershock of post-pandemic life.
#2: Prioritize Mental Health Education: Psychologically-informed practice has been proposed as a way to address mental health symptoms present in people with chronic pain. It turns out that what is beneficial for our patients’ mental health is also beneficial for practitioner mental health. Psychologically-informed practice not only improves pain outcomes but it also improves the mental health of the practitioners delivering the care. Many DPT programs, (mis)guided by CAPTE, have yet to create significant content related to this mission and goal. We must prioritize psychologically-informed practice and mental health education within our programs and practice settings. Encouraging open discussions about the challenges and stressors in our profession can help reduce the stigma associated with seeking help.
#3: Peer Support and Mentorship: Establish support networks and mentorship programs to connect students and new practitioners with experienced professionals who can provide guidance, share experiences, and offer emotional support.
#4: Resilience and Coping Strategies: Integrate mental health and resilience training into physical therapy programs. Teaching stress management, coping strategies, psychological flexibility, and self-care can help students and practitioners better handle the demands of their work.
#5: Access to Mental Health Resources: Ensure that students and practitioners have access to mental health resources, such as counseling services, helplines, and peer support groups. Make information on these resources readily available and encourage their use.
#6: Research and Policy Development: Support research into the psychological aspects of physical therapy education and practice. Advocate for policies that promote mental health within the profession.
#7: Destigmatize Help-Seeking: We must collectively work to destigmatize seeking help for mental health issues. Encourage an environment where individuals feel safe and supported when seeking professional help.
Flourishing with good mental health is possible even within the context of a stressful and academically challenging DPT program. As dedicated physical therapists, we must come together to address this issue and work towards a more psychologically-informed approach in our field. The mental health of our colleagues and future professionals in physical therapy is of paramount importance.
Joe Tatta, PT, DPT
Founder and CEO
Integrative Pain Science Institute
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