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Students in Focus

An awakening experience for students working in mental health

Content warning: This article discusses suicide and self-harm. 

Clinical placements are an integral part of putting theory into practice, and for three University of Canberra Master of Clinical Psychology students, their time with the WOKE program has been particularly special.

The WOKE program provides early intervention for young people aged 15 to 21 with borderline personality disorder (BPD) characteristics.

“I love how supportive the team is and I genuinely enjoy coming in every day to learn and to make a difference,” says Keira Jebb.

Keira and fellow students Nick Hancock and Emma Sinclair completed a 14-week placement with the program.

“It’s been so rewarding to help a part of the population that often gets a pretty hard rep in media when it comes to mental health – you end up becoming an advocate for them and the challenges they face,” Nick says.

“It’s going to be so exciting to join the health workforce and share our knowledge,” Emma says.

The WOKE program started in 2019, funded by the Capital Health Network, and operating at the University of Canberra.

It gives second-year postgraduate students – who’ve been selected from a placement application process – a rare opportunity to deliver Dialectical Behaviour Therapy for adolescents under clinical supervision.

Emily McIntyre is a clinical psychologist and team leader for the WOKE program who prepares and guides the students, as they take clients through the free individual and group therapy sessions.

“The initial idea behind the name ‘WOKE’ is that it reflects on the program's goals around helping clients to become more aware and conscious of their experiences, needs and responses, and to awaken skilful practice – we also extend this to our WOKE clinicians.”

The sessions aim to provide young people with tools to cope with intense emotions that can lead to self-harm and suicidal ideation.

“Rather than just assessing risk, we're actually teaching them mindfulness, emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills — these are key areas of dialectical behavioural therapy,” Emily says.

“We're potentially reducing presentation to hospital, or a crisis situation in a family where people are up all night and struggling, or they're missing school.”

Camilla Mead is a clinical psychologist with the WOKE team, who says a big part of early intervention is being able to make changes in a person’s life when it matters most.

“It might be their first job and a really big life goal for them, or maybe they'd been out of employment for a while and are getting back into the workforce,” she says.

“We've had people who haven't been able to go to school and they get back into it – and these are huge things that can shape the rest of their lives.”

Camilla moved into her role with the program after completing her placement as a postgraduate student.

She says during other clinical placements, students are somewhat protected from dealing with risky behaviours. Through the WOKE program, students learn the skills to support young people experiencing these behaviours – which in some cases, can be life-threatening.

“Gaining these skills in dialectical behavioural therapy now, means that students will have the confidence to help their future clients,” Camilla says.

“In my own experience, it meant that I didn’t feel afraid – instead, I felt really hopeful that I could make a difference to the young people who are going through these challenges.”

For Keira, Nick and Emma, the chance to 'upskill' and deliver a combination of individual and group sessions not typically seen in other therapies was a steep learning curve.

“It’s a bit daunting to get up and present in front of people in the group sessions, but I think the support that we have around us makes it something that you can kind of look forward to,” Nick says.

When COVID-19 restrictions were introduced on campus, the group sessions were moved to lecture theatres, to adhere to social distancing guidelines. These have now become the preferred location for bringing everyone together.

“I think getting out of the therapy rooms is nice – we can all get to know one another, and the young people can enjoy the experience of being a uni student,” Emily says.

Parents or carers also attend the group sessions, where they too learn dialectical behavioural therapy techniques.

“You can feel this magic in the room where a parent and young person who normally have huge barriers between them can finally bring them down and just connect in a way that's supportive and respectful,” Emma says.

“You also become invested in everyone’s journey, not just your own client’s.”

Emily says the group dynamic can benefit everyone in the room.

“These are really vulnerable young people, so talking about emotion can be very tricky. Also, parents often don't necessarily talk to people about what's happening with them, so they come out of sessions feeling relieved, and like they’re not alone.”

In addition to providing students with external placement opportunities, Emily says the WOKE program fills a service gap in Canberra.

“We’re getting referrals for young people who are seen as ‘not struggling enough yet’ to meet the requirements of ACT mental health services,” she says.

An evaluation led by Professor in Psychology Dr Debra Rickwood, a researcher in UC’s Discipline of Psychology, found WOKE played a valued role in the ACT as an accessible and successful early intervention program, not only for young people and their parents, but the intern clinicians who were learning in a supportive environment.

“We hope to give them as much back as they're putting in,” Emily says.

“We do feel pretty lucky. It's a lovely place to be.”

For enquiries about the program, call 6201 5843 or email WOKE@canberra.edu.au

If this story has raised any concerns for you, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14

Words by Emma Larouche, photo by Kelly White.

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