UConn Physical Therapy Program Integrates Mental Health Education, Treatment

This approach leverages physical therapists' unique training in both exercise and making personal connections with patients

Female students speak with a patient

Doctor of Physical Therapy students meet with a patient at a Wellness Check event. (Jason Sheldon/UConn Photo)

In recent years, UConn’s physical therapy program in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources has expanded the scope of its educational and treatment programming to include mental health.

Mary Beth Osborne, assistant professor-in-residence, joined the UConn Department of Kinesiology in fall 2022. Her first semester, Osborne taught a health and wellness course which did not include a mental health component at the time.

CAHNR 10th Anniversary of Health badge“I felt that physical therapists needed to be well-versed in mental health conditions and concerns, like anxiety and depression,” Osborne says. “Because for many of our patients, those conditions can impact their ability to move and to function.”

This led to including the Mental Health First Aid program for all students in the major. The first aid program is a nationally recognized course, similar to The Red Cross’ physical first aid training program.

The curriculum includes learning about mental health conditions, how to have a conversation with someone who is struggling with their mental health, and reducing stigma surrounding mental health.

“The idea is to be a community member who will say something, or who will help direct people to resources,” Osborne says.

The physical therapy program has hosted events like a campus-wide checkup that included a mental health screening run by students and community volunteers. The physical therapy students can make specific physical exercise recommendations based on individual needs and challenges.

Osborne says physical therapists are better positioned to provide physical activity and exercise recommendations and should be part of a comprehensive team of providers including mental health professionals. That’s due to the fact that physical therapists are trained in motivational interviewing to help people find effective ways to get active with specific plans, reminders, and accountability.

“We get a little deeper into the exercise piece so the mental health professional can focus on what they’re trained to do,” Osborne says.

The UConn PT C.A.R.E.S. (Community Access to Rehabilitation and Education Services), a student-oriented learning experience, also offers one-on-one physical therapy for those struggling with anxiety and depression. PT C.A.R.E.S. provides physical therapy services to members of the community free of charge as part of a cooperative learning experience.

There are currently about 30 students involved in this hands-on learning experience, Osborne says.

Osborne says physical therapists need to have a seat at the table when it comes to holistic treatment of mental health conditions because exercise plays a critical role in both mental and physical health.

“Exercise is known to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety and yet physical therapists are not generally part of that team,” Osborne says.

On the flip side, anxiety and depression can prolong or exacerbate physical pain symptoms, something Osborne has seen in her own post-concussion patients.

“The whole person needs to be treated, [mental and physical health] are intertwined,” Osborne says.

The American Physical Therapy Association issued a position statement in 2020 saying that mental health should be part of physical therapists’ scope of practice. They also advised physical therapists to screen everyone they see in an outpatient setting for anxiety.

“It’s gaining traction, this idea that the role of the physical therapist is growing in terms of mental health care,” Osborne says.

Those interested in taking advantage of the clinic’s metal health services can email Osborne at marybeth.osborne@uconn.edu.


This work relates to CAHNR’s Strategic Vision area focused on Enhancing Health and Well-Being Locally, Nationally, and Globally.

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