2023 Recipients

Meet POTAC’s 2023 Scholarship awardees, and learn about their mental health OT experiences.

Kim Aspelund Scholarship

Tania Herrera, OTD Candidate
University of Southern California

“I completed my level two fieldwork at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) and have now transition to residency in the same location. 

I had always wanted to work/ intern at a children’s hospital, so when I was placed at this location, I was so excited to acquired experience and new knowledge. The CHLA- UCEDD welcome me with open arms, providing guidance from supervisors, professors, and doctoral residents. They did a great job pairing me with a resident student that showed me the ropes to OT mental health. CHLA- UCEDD rans several clinics and I had the opportunity to rotate through a few of them. One of my favorite clinics was School Age Clinic (SAC) which primarily focused on medication management. SAC consisted of an interdisciplinary team of developmental behavioral pediatricians, psychologists, speech therapists, case managers, and occupational therapists. What I liked about this clinic was that everyone had a seat at the table and was able to share their perspective on each case. It was interesting to see the different approaches that individuals would take on a case depending on their discipline. I was able to participate in intervention planning, and by the end of fieldwork I was seeing my own cases in SAC. Some of these cases included Spanish- speaking families, which allowed me to use my primary language as a tool to connect families to resources and incorporate them in the treatment process.

As a resident, I continue to learn more regarding being an occupational therapist at a pediatrics mental health setting. CHLA – UCEDD has provided me the experience to work with interdisciplinary teams and support clients from diverse backgrounds. The major take away from this experience was learning the importance of prioritizing mental health in order to allow individuals to complete their favorite occupations.”

Emily Randall, OTR/L
San Jose State University

“My path to occupational therapy has been a winding one. After eight years working in the nonprofit industry, in 2017 I returned to school to pursue OT. I was particularly inspired while working with Syzygy Dance Project (SDP), a nonprofit bringing healing mindful movement/dance programs to underserved communities. While my job mostly involved computer work, I supported the organization by facilitating a weekly class for veterans in addiction recovery at the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System. I treasured the hour of class each week and quickly realized that I wanted a career that would allow me to work directly with patients and further explore my long-standing interests in psychology, mindfulness, and health. In 2018 a friend introduced me to OT as a career option. The possibility of incorporating mindfulness and the creative arts into occupational therapy has served as my guiding star during the past six years. As a first-year student, I wrote my literature review on the effectiveness of dance as an OT intervention for adults with PTSD. After posting in the AOTA forums about this topic, I was able to connect with OTs across the nation, and I then created a Facebook group called “Occupational Therapists Moving Mindfully” to serve as a place for sharing ideas and experiences.

I put my passion into practice during my Fieldwork II internship at John George Psychiatric Hospital (JGPH). Working with patients in crisis each day was a challenge, albeit an incredibly fulfilling one. I very often came away from evaluations feeling as if both parties benefited from the interaction. The patients taught me something about life or expanded my perspective in a critical way, and I connected with them therapeutically, offering whatever they seemed to need in the moment, whether it was education, compassion, structure, humor, joy, relaxation, or redirection. I also enjoyed the process of facilitating all types of group interventions and experimenting with new topics and methods. The group environment is rich with opportunities for growth and learning. During many groups I witnessed patients offering insight and support to one another, which added such potency to the therapeutic nature of OT in this setting. For my final project, I created a mindful movement/dance group protocol, which was well-received by patients and staff. The OTs at JGPH continue to utilize my protocol today! 

My experiences confirmed my desire to obtain further training and experience working in mental health, as this work seems to suit me very well. I enjoy the dynamic nature of connecting with and supporting people who are in various mental states, and I am humbled in witnessing the burden of managing a condition that is oftentimes invisible and even more often misunderstood. I hope to help individuals facing mental illness to engage and reconnect with their bodies and their occupations in a way that inspires them to move in the direction of self-care and growth. Working in this setting can be uniquely challenging, but if we as practitioners can model self-awareness, integrity, healthy boundaries, and self-compassion, we can have an immeasurable impact on patients and enjoy the process ourselves.”

Ann MacRae Scholarship

Heather Javaherian-Dysinger OTD, OTR/L, FAOTA
Loma Linda University’s Children’s Hospital

“In the United States over the past several years we have seen a rise in mental health conditions among adults and youth.  Specifically, there has been a rise in the number of youth experiencing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. In 2020 suicide was the second leading cause of death among youth ages 10-14 (NAMI, 2023). Research suggests that 1 in 6 youth experience a mental health disorder each year (Whitney & Peterson, 2019). California has an overall youth mental health ranking of 36/51 meaning that there is a higher prevalence of mental illness and lower access to care for youth in California (Mental Health America, 2022).

Though Emergency Department visits have decreased since COVID, youth mental health remains a significant problem with drug overdoses and suicide-related behaviors (Anderson et al, 2023). Over 75% of these psychiatric emergencies can be stabilized within 24 hours. The Emergency Psychiatric Assessment Treatment and Health (EmPATH) program was established as a hospital-based crisis stabilization unit to help manage behavioral health emergencies in the Emergency Department. EmPATH programs provide immediate patient evaluation and treatment by mental health professionals in a calming, healing, and comfortable environment.   Occupational therapy can be a part of the healthcare team supporting youth in EmPATH units by providing client-centered, developmentally appropriate calming activities to help youth stabilize and re-direct youth’s energy to purposeful activities. Interventions are grounded in our roots in mental health to exude Mary Reilly’s words, that “Man through the use of his hands are they are energized by mind and will can influence the state of their health” (Reilly, 1962, p. 8).

We are piloting occupational therapy at Loma Linda University’s Children’s Hospital Emergency Department to serve youth ages 4-18 who are awaiting psychiatric placement to mental health hospitals or psychiatric assessment to determine discharge planning. The objectives are to support youth with positive coping and calming therapeutic activities as well as provide students with learning opportunities to develop interview skills, therapeutic rapport, observation skills, de-escalation skills, and collaboration with the interprofessional team. Three licensed occupational therapy faculty at Loma Linda University are leading the program with first year entry-level Doctor of Occupational Therapy students. We are offering two hours of pro bono services three days/week. Thus far we have serviced over 25 youth with histories of trauma, suicidal ideation, suicide attempt, depression, anxiety, and homicidal ideation. We conduct an initial interview using an occupational profile and administer the Occupational Self-Assessment, provide psycho education, and use therapeutic activities to create rapport, observe behaviors, and give the youth a chance to engage in leisure and purpose while waiting for placement. As the EmPATH unit is still being developed with staffing and supplies, we see youth both in the EmPATH unit and bedside in the Emergency Department.

Case Example:

A 13-year-old youth was seen in the EmPATH unit. An initial screen revealed that she resided with her mother and one sibling and grandparents. She struggled with depression and had a history of suicidal ideation, self-harm and suicide attempts. Her mother appeared very supportive and was staying with her. At this time, she was not on any medications or seeing a therapist. During the Occupational Self-Assessment, the youth identified strengths in academics, writing, and drawing. She shared that she struggles with getting things done and following through on her chores such as keeping her room clean, eating healthy, and having a consistent routine. Further discussion revealed that her need for perfection often resulted in her not able to finish tasks because she needed it to be perfect or she could not do it. Motivational interviewing was incorporated to identify a goal related to the task of making her bed. Psychoeducation was provided to both the youth and her mom regarding the importance of a consistent routine and healthy coping strategies. Transition of care was also discussed with mother and youth to address concerns and questions regarding discharge to an acute care facility.

As we continue to develop our program we plan to contribute to the continuum of care as the youth transition to acute care facilities, partial hospital programs, or intensive out-patient treatment programs. Thus far youth and caregivers have expressed appreciation for the services. Nursing staff has noted that occupational therapy services have provided the youth with productivity and opportunities to process their situation. Occupational therapy has an opportunity to be a part of the essential health care team for youth with psychiatric conditions in Emergency Departments and EmPATH units.”

Jessica Frausto, OTR/L
University of Southern California

“As I grew up in a low socioeconomic Latino family with divorced parents, my lived experiences of an untraditional family sparked my initial curiosity of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma-informed care. When discovering the profession of occupational therapy, I felt at home. OT was exactly what I was looking for – a career that understood and prioritized holistic wellness, built lifelong resilience, and developed meaningful relationships, all through a person- and family-centered approach. I reflected on my lived experiences, passions, and values when deciding what type of occupational therapy doctoral residency I wanted. Without hesitation, I chose pediatric mental health, leading to my current position as the occupational therapy doctoral resident at the Violence Intervention Program (VIP).

VIP is a community-based mental health center in Los Angeles that provides services, such as individual and family therapy, occupational therapy, and case management, to families with children and youth ages 0-26 years old with mental health diagnoses, ACEs, and trauma. With VIP being situated in one of the densest, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse areas in Los Angeles County, I provide services to underserved communities that are predominantly Hispanic/Latino, low-income, Spanish speaking, and first-generation immigrants. VIP is also the only mental health agency in Southern California that provides specialized services to clients with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

In my experience thus far, I’ve gained a deeper understanding about the importance of reframing ACEs, building safe, trusting therapeutic relationships, and providing family support. I’ve had the privilege of supporting families and children through many firsts – first IEP meeting, first time learning about their diagnosis, and first connection to Regional Center services, just to name a few. I’ve continued to gain insight into the needs and best practices of children with ACEs and the systems of care that influence the delivery and success of mental health services, further impacting how I advocate in school IEP meetings, co-lead social skills groups like Incredible Years, and educate caregivers, teachers, and other professionals. These insights have also motivated me to develop programs like a Holistic Arts-based Program for children ages 9-12 years old with challenges in self-esteem, emotional regulation and expression, and interpersonal skills. I’m also an occupational therapy scholar in the CHLA California Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (CA-LEND) Fellowship Program, where I bring forth the scope of OT as it pertains to Maternal and Child Health in various interdisciplinary spaces. Recently, I presented at the Fourth Annual HOPE Summit as part of a CA-LEND leadership project, where I presented on the intersection of ACEs and disabilities and how to promote access to the four building blocks of positive childhood experiences (social and civic engagement; relationships; safe, stable environments; and emotional growth) which are vital to healthy childhood development.

Overall, my role as a pediatric mental health occupational therapist has brought forth an abundance of joy and gratification. I cherish the unique value I hold as someone who closely mirrors my clients’ backgrounds, and I look forward to empowering and inspiring numerous others as my journey continues.”