Student optometrists: maintaining resilience

After facing two challenging years, optometrists in training might be carrying a variety of emotions. OT  looks at AOP support and tips for resilience

standing under a rain cloud
Getty/Francesca Bellini

Much of life may have returned to something resembling normality over the past few months, but many are still taking a cautious approach and unfortunately, some of the impacts of the pandemic are still being felt by students and graduates.

AOP student representatives have shared with OT concerns around placement availability, challenges in securing pre-reg places, and delays in beginning that all-important Scheme for Registration. Read more about these challenges in the most recent update to OT’s COVID-Generation project. 

Luke McRoy-Jones, a pre-reg optometrist and AOP Councillor, told OT that both 2019 and 2020 graduates were affected by the pandemic, facing delays in starting their placements.

Discussing the delays, he shared: “This of course has a significant financial impact, as those trainees were earning a pre-registration salary for much longer than expected and for those trainees staying away from home, this would have resulted in more time with extra living expenses.

“The financial impact and the lack of progression and delays have a massive impact on wellbeing too.”

Research by mental health organisation, Student Minds, throughout 2020 and 2021 found that 74% of students reported that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing, while 49% said it had adversely impacted their finances.

Graduates have been facing the effects of the pandemic, reporting a reduction in opportunities and feelings of “being in limbo” due to plans being delayed or put on hold.

We’re determined to help students and newly-qualified optometrists through this time

Sarah Melzack, AOP membership benefits officer and project manager of the AOP Peer Support Line

Sarah Melzack, AOP membership benefits officer and project manager of the AOP Peer Support Line, explained that 16% of calls to the helpline are made by students and pre-regs.

She explained: “Most are centred around stress and anxiety due to the issues the pandemic has put before them. Starting university, leaving home, and the pressures of imminent examinations or work placements are enough, without the additions of isolation, delays to progression and financial worries.

“It’s a dangerous melting pot and the ripples are still spreading through the pond.”

However, AOP support is available for students and pre-regs, with Melzack emphasising: “We’re determined to help students and newly-qualified optometrists through this time.”

The free and confidential Peer Support Line is accessible to members and non-members at any stage of their career, including students and pre-regs. The helpline enables individuals to discuss their problems with a trained peer in a non-judgemental space, with Melzack commenting: “We hope that the Peer Support Line can be a source of help and relief during these times.”

September also marked the launch of the new AOP Mentoring Programme to support newly-qualified optometrist members “navigate their new lives out in practice, providing them with a role model, sounding board, and ultimately, cheerleader,” Melzack said.

Accessed through a dedicated platform, newly-qualified optometrists can gain support on areas ranging from confidence building, to career progression and self-development. Find out more about the launch of the programme through OT’s recent article.

There is more to come, however, Melzack shared, telling OT: “We are excited to be extending this offer of support to pre-reg optometrist members soon, so watch this space.”

Remember your ‘why’; the reason you are working hard and showing up every day to get your dream role as an optometrist

Sheena Tanna-Shah, optometrist and mindfulness and meditation practitioner

Optometrist, Sheena Tanna-Shah, who is also a mindfulness and meditation practitioner, observed that after two years of pandemic disruption, early career optometrists might be facing a variety of emotions – from frustration and uncertainty, to feeling proud of pulling through the challenges they faced.

“There will be many thoughts and emotions to work through and it’s important to acknowledge and process all these feelings to move forward with a positive mindset,” she shared.

Discussing the turbulence many student and pre-reg optometrists have experienced and the potential wellbeing implications, Tanna-Shah explained: “When a once-certain path or future becomes uncertain, it can cause anxiety of the unknown.”

This can lead to feelings of stress and overwhelm, she pointed out, as well as physical symptoms such as headaches, insomnia and nausea. She highlighted: “Therefore it is really important to manage our wellbeing, from talking to friends and family or professional support groups.”

After such a challenging few years, OT asked how optometrists can maintain resilience in the months ahead, whether starting or returning to university, applying for or beginning a pre-reg placement, or starting out in practice.

Sheena Tanna-Shah’s tips for maintaining resilience:

  1. Practise mindfulness and remind yourself how far you've come through a challenging year; how much strength, courage, focus and determination you must have to get where you are now. You could have post-it note reminders in your room or books that give you a motivational boost
  2. When you feel any anxiety or stress know that you are not alone in these thoughts. It's okay to have setbacks and challenges but support is always available to you. Communication is key and your friends, family, colleagues and professional support teams want to help you
  3. Write down your achievements every week, no matter how big or small. All the little steps will show you how far you are progressing
  4. Remember your ‘why’; the reason you are working hard and showing up every day to get your dream role as an optometrist. Think about how amazing and incredible it will feel when you are qualified.