Occupational Therapy OT

| 14 July 2023

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Walking Through Fire in Florida: OT Student Focuses Capstone on Firefighter Mental Health

USAHS Alyssa Garcia Capstone featured firefighters florida mental health

Access to proactive, personalized therapy is critical for all professions. First responders, who often experience trauma in the field, feel this acutely. According to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, “more firefighters die from suicide each year than in the line of duty, and many additional suicides are likely unreported.”

One student at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) responded to the call for mental health resources for firefighters – in the form of occupational therapy (OT).

Helping Heroes Lead Quality Lives

Alyssa M. Garcia, OTD, is a 2023 graduate of USAHS’ Residential Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program in Miami. She chose USAHS for its immersive, hands-on approach and focus on research. “Every OT I talked with spoke highly of USA graduates and said they were well-prepared for the field,” said Garcia.

Inspired by her father, a South Florida firefighter for over 32 years, Garcia decided to leverage her capstone project as an opportunity to provide critical, OT-specific mental health support to local firefighters.

“My Dad’s been a firefighter for longer than I’ve been alive. Many of my family members and friends are firefighters. I know them and I saw their need,” said Garcia.

She identified a gap in mental health services for first responders – while they might have access to social services and psychologists, no one was addressing the impact of their work on regular, daily life.

The 14-week doctoral capstone experience combines research and real-world application. Each student chooses an area of interest within their field of study and investigates it deeply.

See Alyssa talk about her capstone project here:

A USAHS faculty mentor and two capstone advisors partnered with Garcia on the project. Garcia said, “They still help me with writing and editing. They’re the first ones to sit down with me and work through any questions.”

Garcia collaborated with a local first responder research and training team made up of graduate students from a local university’s College of Psychology. The team provides mental and behavioral health trainings to law enforcement, firefighter and other first responder agencies across South Florida. This group connected her with the Davie Fire Rescue Department.

First, Garcia surveyed 72% of the fire department’s personnel – she focused on occupations, routines and roles and how they’re disrupted and impacted by on-the-job stress and trauma.

Together, they addressed any challenges that interrupt healthy routine activities, such as exercise. “We looked at these issues as indicators of what might be wrong and what we can do to improve it,” said Garcia.

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Then, she developed a 30-minute functional coping mechanism workshop for the first responders. The sessions used common language to talk about challenges, appropriate strategies and prioritization of roles.

“There’s nothing wrong with video games, but if you’re in a heightened state, consider playing Mario Bros. instead of Call of Duty. Or if you’ve been ordering too much takeout, maybe it’s time to meal prep,” explained Garcia.

She discussed how an individual’s work can provide their primary sense of meaning and purpose.

“We have many roles – parent, spouse, daughter, friend and so on. If your occupation is the most important thing to you, when something goes wrong during a shift, the impact is significant.”

Garcia also helped to conduct officer trainings for mental health debriefings after a rough fire call. She worked with the team to create a protocol for who to call and when. They also identified functional signs to determine if a firefighter is not coping well.

USAHS Alyssa Garcia Capstone OT OTD firefighters mental health

Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk

“This capstone project taught me that I’m tougher than I look, or tougher than I thought I would be,” said Garcia.

She gained a better understanding of the firefighters’ occupation and was able to build rapport by logging over 200 hours with them on rescue calls. She said that seeing and experiencing their trauma firsthand and witnessing them revive and save patients was transformative. “That’s a type of toughness that I’ve never tested before.”

Her hard work paid off and helped to break down barriers and address the firefighters’ mental health stigma.

“Working together with them helped me to get them to open up, to trust me and be receptive to what I had to say about mental health.”

Garcia continues to work with the Davie Fire Rescue Department to roll out a retirement transition program. The practical resource equips soon-to-retire firefighters with tools to start thinking about life after fire and rescue. “The mental health isolation, loss of socialization and withdrawal from a routine is real. You have to learn who you are again and make a plan for how you want to carry out the rest of your daily life,” said Garcia.

Igniting an OT Future

Garcia hopes to continue this work and inspire other OTs to get involved as well. She said that every profession learns about holism, but this experience demonstrates the tangible impact that collaborative, interdisciplinary efforts can have on mental health. “The research and programs are applicable to first responders in any setting,” she said.

USAHS Alyssa Garcia Capstone firefighters florida mental health

Garcia was the April 2023 commencement speaker for USAHS’ physical therapy (PT) and OT programs and was honored with the Outstanding Student Award and Scholastic Achievement Award for the co-highest GPA. She’s most proud of being hooded by her firefighter father at graduation.

The future looks bright for Garcia. She’s studying for her National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam and looking for a professional role. She’s excited to be done with homework, and to apply the skills she’s learned in school with her own clients.

Her best advice for future OT students? “Take a deep breath. Pursue something that you’re passionate about to increase your motivation and drive.”

She appreciates that USAHS fostered her problem-solving skills and critical judgment. “They gave us a really strong foundation to build on. I feel ready for what’s next,” Garcia said.

Learn more about USAHS’ occupational therapy programs and immersive, energized OT community and apply today.


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