Document Type : Original Article


Department of Rehabilitation and Movement Sciences, School of Health Professions, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick‑Piscataway, New Jersey, United States


BACKGROUND: Physical therapists provide important services for improving health and function for
the general population; however, physical therapy (PT) is infrequently accessed by persons with a
primary diagnosis of severe mental illness (SMI). This study examined the attitudes of PT students
before and during their participation in a service‑learning (SL) program for people with SMI.
MATERIALS AND METHODS: A cross‑sectional institutional review board approved qualitative study
collected 1‑h semi‑structured qualitative interviews from seven graduates of a doctor of PT program.
Participants were from a New Jersey University program in the USA who participated in an SMI SL
experience. Participants were asked about participant attitudes toward people with SMI and their
observations during a SL experience using an interview guide. All interviews were digitally recorded,
transcribed, and coded using interpretive phenomenological analysis by a team of researchers. This
type of qualitative analysis aims to explore participants understanding of their experience without
pre‑conceived theoretical direction. Recordings, transcripts, and field notes were reviewed for
recurring ideas that were summarized into codes. Through independent coding, reflexivity memos,
and consensus meetings, data were further analyzed to identify themes. Investigator triangulation
addressed differences and aided consensus development.
RESULTS: Before the SL experience, the students reported negative perceptions about people
with SMI and feelings of uncertainty and unpreparedness to work with this population. According
to student reports, SL supported their personal and professional development and allowed them to
see that PT services are beneficial for people with SMI.
CONCLUSIONS: The results of this study indicate that PT students have negative attitudes of people
with SMI and feel unprepared to work with this population. The results also support SL as an effective
strategy for helping students in their preparation for working with people with SMI.


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