Schweitzer Fellow Samantha Sanderson’s knows firsthand about the difficulties of living with mental illness: both of her parents have psychiatric diagnoses and they faced challenges in their community in part due to societal stigma about mental illness. Schweitzer Fellow Samantha Lavach also saw the effects of stigma early on in her work with people with mental illness—including her own incorrect beliefs and assumptions about this population.
Their individual experiences inspired the two graduate students of occupational therapy at The Ohio State University School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences to develop The Mindfulness Yoga Program for adults living with chronic mental illness. Lavach and Sanderson implemented the program at Southeast, Inc., a comprehensive community mental health agency in Columbus, OH, with assistance from Yoga on High, a local yoga studio. The adaptive, client-centered yoga program aims to increase community integration, social participation and health and wellness—all key components of mental health recovery—for participants. The program includes aspects of self awareness and physical health, enhances social interaction for participants and encourages them to become active members of their community by giving them a sense of purpose and belonging.
The Mindfulness Yoga Program reflects an observation of Albert Schweitzer’s that Lavach is fond of quoting: “Healthcare doesn’t just occur in our doctors’ offices and our hospitals. It occurs where we live, where we work, where we play, and where we pray.”
ASF: How did you decide to develop your particular project?
Samantha Lavach: I have long been involved in working with people living with mental illness in the community. When I first began this work, I found that I held a lot of beliefs and stigmas about them, which were just untrue. It was not until I got to interact with these individuals on a daily basis and help them with meaningful activities that I understood the needs of this population and how they are stigmatized by society. It tested my own beliefs, and made me a better person. I thought Occupational Therapy would be the perfect career choice to impact individuals living with disabilities in the community, and throughout school I have found that I also have a great passion for prevention and health and wellness. So, I decided to implement a project with Samantha Sanderson to give individuals living with mental illness in the community an opportunity to practice yoga, participate in the community, and build social ties with others. The Mindfulness Yoga adaptive yoga program has been implemented at Southeast Inc. and is continuing to grow.
Samantha Sanderson: My life has been profoundly impacted by mental illness. Both of my parents have diagnoses and this informed my decision to pursue a career in Occupational Therapy. I witnessed how engaging in healthy activities and participating in the community were huge challenges for my parents due to the stigma they faced and their differing needs. We learned about the Fellowship during our mental health coursework and studying Tina Champagne’s work. She is an Occupational Therapist who incorporated yoga in an approach called sensory modulation to increase self-awareness, the ability to self-nurture, increase resilience, self-esteem and body image, and increase the ability to engage in self-care activities, meaningful roles, social activities and cope with triggers. This inspired the idea for our yoga group as we recognized the amazing benefits this kind of activity could offer.
ASF: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
Samantha Lavach: Samantha and I hope that the project will continue under the Momentum For Life program, a health and wellness program at Southeast Inc. We have also partnered with a community yoga venue, Yoga On High. Through these two programs, and by recruiting other students to continue the program, we hope it will be sustained. The impact this program is having on the community is evident during each class. For instance, I see participants supporting and encouraging other through the yoga poses. They are also getting out into the community more, by either walking as a group to have yoga in the park or by participating in yoga class at Yoga on High next month. Guest teachers from Yoga on High have been involved in the program, expanding on our community partnerships and getting the individuals introduced to different types of yoga to improve their health, wellness, and happiness.
Samantha Sanderson: We hope to build long-lasting relationships among our students that will ensure our yoga group continues beyond our time as Fellows. Most importantly, we hope that the participants in our program learn about yoga and keep it as a tool in their wellness toolbox. It is a very simple activity that can be practiced anywhere, with minimal equipment. I hope that our participants will be well equipped with the knowledge and confidence to practice on their own or in a community yoga class.
ASF: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
Samantha Lavach: I think one of the most pressing health issues of our time is wellness and prevention, and that participation in meaningful activities is critical to maintaining good health. Health and wellness prevention is important across all populations, disabilities, and ages. Not only does participating in meaningful activities give individuals a sense of independence and function, these activities can be geared toward promoting good health and improving quality of life. For instance, utilizing different methods of exercise, cooking healthy meals, chronic disease management and other lifestyle choices should be an important aspect of health programming for all populations.
Samantha Sanderson: I think the major health-related issue of our time is providing affordable health care to all. I think this goal can be attained by focusing on preventative, community based care. In the field of mental health, the cycle of hospitalization and relapse can be addressed by creating and funding more preventative mental health services in the community that focus on community integration and wellness. I see this taking place at Southeast Inc., an outpatient mental health facility in Columbus, and believe their model of practice is the way forward and deserves continued support.
ASF: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
Samantha Lavach: The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship has changed my life in so many ways. I’ve learned to believe in myself and my ideas. The Fellowship has given me the opportunity to take what we are learning in school, build an idea using adaptive yoga as a medium for participation in meaningful activities, and watch it be successful in the community. Our yoga program participants are becoming more confident in themselves and improving their balance and flexibility, which translates to many areas of their everyday lives. We focus on being as client- centered as possible. We get to know our participants, what motivates them, what their strengths and limitations are, and who they are as individuals. One of the boulders we anticipated was having consistent participation. However, I think because we must be so client-centered, we’ve created a comfortable space and our participants return to class each week. It is awe-inspiring to be a part of their lives, and enable these individuals to do something they thought they could never do, all while improving their quality of life and health.
Samantha Sanderson: I have been amazed at the continuing opportunities to collaborate and improve our program. It has a very creative element to it, and this has been very inspirational. Most “what if” and “could we” questions can usually be answered with a little bit of attention, and the possibilities are truly endless!
ASF: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and, ultimately, a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?
Samantha Lavach: For me, being a Fellow means devoting myself to service and providing opportunities and hope to those in need by applying my knowledge, passions, and ideas. It means being a part of a stranger’s life, and impacting that life in positive, healthy ways. The Mindfulness Yoga program does so much more than just help people be flexible. It provides individuals the opportunity to move and be healthy, to meet other people, to laugh, and to be a part of the community in which they live.
I think many other students who want to work with underserved population also have innovative ideas about how best to do that. So for me, being a Fellow of Life means inspiring other students to develop projects, stay client centered, and put their ideas into action. I plan to always promote and be involved with the Schweitzer Fellowship, and I plan on always implementing service into my career as an Occupational Therapist.
Samantha Sanderson: My experience this year has been so enriching and rewarding that I doubt I could go without this kind of activity in my life going forward. I am inspired to continue finding creative ways to address problems in my community and to collaborate with others. I love the community spirit of the Fellowship and the sincere desire among Fellows to serve and make the world a better place. It has made me feel very confident about being able to materialize an idea into action. I’m excited to see what this will inspire in future.
Click here to learn more about the Columbus-Athens Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.