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Emory DPT Bringing Fun, Wellness Back to Graduate School

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Recent studies show that graduate students are at greater risk for mental health issues than those in the general population. In one international study appearing in Nature Biotechnology, 39 percent of nearly 2,300 PhD candidates scored in the moderate-to-severe depression range compared to 6 percent of the general population measured in a previous study using the same scale.

A recent survey by the American College Health Association backed those findings concluding that 66 percent of graduate and professional students experienced above-average stress in the last year. A November 2018 Harvard survey of 500 graduate students from eight prestigious universities underscored the severe implications of the problem revealing that 11 percent of the graduate students surveyed reported having suicidal thoughts over a two-week period.

While higher stress levels for graduate students is hardly a surprise, the Emory Division of Physical Therapy, in collaboration with the student-driven Sustainability Committee, is making efforts to inject a few doses of fun and healthiness into the graduate school experience. Those activities, led by division faculty members, have helped alleviate stress, build student camaraderie and strengthen faculty/student relationships.

Breaking Walls Down with Trivia and Sporting Events

Like several students and faculty in Emory’s Division of Physical Therapy, Emory DPT Assistant Professor Jenny Sharp, PT, DPT, is a former college athlete whose competitive drive is greater than most. But Sharp had no idea that a simple game of lunch-time trivia among faculty and students would get the competitive juices flowing.

“We had a lot of fun, but I learned that we have some very competitive people in our department, especially our faculty,” Sharp recalls with laughter.

Sharp, a 2011 Emory DPT graduate who joined the faculty in May 2018, has hosted two lunch-time trivias in the past year in which five teams consisting of six to eight people, compete for first-place prizes such as Starbucks gift cards. About 40 faculty and students attended both events which Sharp said included a lot of laughter and helped “break walls down” between students and faculty.

“The whole reason for lunch-time trivia is to allow students and faculty to get to know each other outside of the classroom environment,” Sharp says. “For students, I hope their only image of faculty won’t be of us standing in front of them in a classroom giving them a lecture or an exam.”

Sharp, who is a season-ticket holder and an avid Atlanta United soccer fan, personally purchased 150 tickets for the Emory DPT students and faculty to join her at a September game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. All of the tickets were sold.

“We had a great time and they put the Emory DPT name on the large halo board at halftime,” she says. “And then, after the game, 50 lucky people from our group had the chance to attempt a penalty kick on the field. That was really exciting.”

Six of those people were winners of the most recent lunch-time trivia. The rest were selected from a drawing in which students purchased tickets to support the Foundation for Physical Therapy Research. Together, students raised almost $900.

Knowing how challenging the Emory DPT program is, Sharp wants to help create a culture where students are encouraged to get away from the classroom setting and have fun.

“It’s important, I think, to bond and connect more off campus, so everyone can see each other in a different setting that is more fun and light hearted,” she says.

Yoga: Enhancing Mindfulness and Movement

Emory DPT Assistant Professor Sarah Caston, PT, DPT, has been practicing yoga for the past 10 years and knows firsthand the physical and mental benefits of the practice. That’s why when Emory’s student-led Sustainability Committee created goals for incorporating more mindfulness and movement into the DPT student experience, Caston had the perfect solution.

Caston, who joined the faculty two years ago and who is also a 2011 Emory DPT graduate, has conducted several yoga classes for Emory DPT students both inside and outside of the Emory School of Medicine.

“Yoga helps you feel grounded, not only physically, but mentally,” Caston says. “It’s asking one to take a look inward and be aware of some of the messages that we send ourselves throughout the day. It allows us to pause and be more aware of our mindset, which is really important in graduate school. Yoga helps to bring mindfulness and movement together.”

In the fast-paced graduate school setting where there’s always a test to study for or a project to be completed, many students feel guilty about carving time out for fun and wellness activities. Caston, who has competed in triathlons, marathons and has hiked long distances, insists that students cannot afford to neglect these activities.

“Research shows that when people abandon self-care and do not practice mindfulness, their productivity and outcomes are worse across the board,” she says. “When students come to me and they are struggling in a class and they tell me, ‘I’m studying hours and hours and I’m still not getting anywhere,’ some of my first questions to them are, ‘What are you doing for self-care? What are you doing to get outside every day? Are you able to find time for exercise?’”

Caston conducted her first yoga class last December with 12 students and continued them on a monthly basis until she went on maternity leave in the spring. Since returning this summer, she’s resumed the classes, now occurring during the lunch hour on the School of Medicine lawn, with anywhere from eight to 20 students. The student feedback has been all positive.

“Students are a little bit hesitant on the front end to give themselves that time,” she adds. “But once they do, they’re very happy that they did.”

More Than a Walk

Going for a walk with Emory DPT Assistant Professor Peter Sprague, PT, DPT, and a group of Emory PT students at Lullwater Park near the Emory campus is anything but a typical walk in the park. Sprague, who leads the park walks with the students, has designed the activity to challenge the students to navigate around the natural barriers of a wooded park.

“My goal is to challenge their movement systems in a manner that isn’t typical during a normal walk or activities that they engage in each day,” Sprague says. “We’re using obstacles in the immediate environment that test balance, cause us to climb over things, go under things and interact with our environment. While it’s a fairly easy activity, I encourage them to challenge themselves at the level of their ability and even a little bit beyond that to try to improve their neuromuscular coordination and balance.”

Sprague, who regularly goes on weekend hiking excursions in the North Georgia mountains, led 10 students on the first walk last fall with participation doubling to 20 for the most recent walk this year. The walks, which are geared to not disturb anything inside the park while maximizing movement and function, will mostly likely occur at least every other month in the future.

“The students love it,” Sprague says. “In fact, among the group that came the first time, 90 percent of them showed up the second time.”

Sprague, like most Emory DPT faculty, is fully aware of the studies showing declining mental health of graduate students and is committed to reaching out to them.

“The more we can be around our students and the more intentional we are about interacting with them outside of the classroom, it is more helpful for them,” he adds.

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