CSU occupational therapist receives prestigious award for her dedication to sleep health

According to the CDC, chronic sleep issues affect the health of around 70 million Americans, leading to a decreased quality of life and a higher incidence of mental illness, injury, and chronic disease. Colorado State University Department of Occupational Therapy alumna Natalie Rolle, an occupational therapist in OT’s Center for Community Partnerships, has spent the better part of her career advocating for the sleep health of her clients and working tirelessly to establish programs and trainings that promote healthy sleep. This year, in recognition of her dedication to improving her clients’ lives, she received the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy Impact Award.

Outdoor portrait of Natalie Rolle
Occupational therapist Natalie Rolle demonstrates a clear dedication to her clients’ sleep health.

Rolle was nominated by Linda Crawford, President of the Colorado Occupational Therapy Association.

“Natalie is an occupational therapist who inspires excitement in others through her passionate advocacy and education efforts in furthering excellence in occupational therapy practice for sleep issues,” Crawford said. “She is one of the most outstanding occupational therapy professionals I have had the pleasure of knowing in my thirty-two years of practice, and I am confident that her stellar career in practice, mentorship, and leadership is only just beginning.”

Rolle earned two degrees at CSU, her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in 2012 and her master’s in occupational therapy in 2014. Since then, she has worked with clients in the Center for Community Partnerships, or CCP, the outreach and engagement arm of CSU’s Department of Occupational Therapy. Rolle’s accomplishments speak for themselves; her career has only recently begun but she already has several different projects that advance sleep research and improve the sleep health of her clients.

Sleep Services program

Over the past two years, Rolle has developed the Sleep Services program at the CCP. As the lead of Sleep Services, she takes on a full caseload of clients by herself, while supervising the other occupational therapists involved in the program. Additionally, she handles the billing for the program and is the marketing and referral coordinator.

“The Sleep Services program is a behavioral sleep health service that specializes in chronic insomnia but also can provide treatment for shift work disorder and circadian challenges,” said Rolle.

Her expertise comes from advanced training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI) as well as in Guided Mindfulness and Acceptance Therapy for Insomnia (GMATI). CBTI is an incredibly useful and innovative therapy, indicated as the first line of treatment for chronic insomnia by the American College of Physicians.

Work with student veterans

While the Sleep Services program is her primary involvement in the Center for Community Partnerships, she also works in the New Start for Student Veterans program. This is a program specifically for post-9/11 veterans in college who are experiencing academic challenges and could use some one-on-one support incorporating good academic strategies into their university life.

“New Start is where Sleep Services was born,” Rolle said. “In 2015, New Start was awarded the Wounded Warrior Project grant. This grant was to develop a sleep intervention for Veterans since an increasing number of Veterans nationwide had started expressing that sleep issues became their primary concern, ahead of PTSD for the first time.  The REST grant ended in 2017 which is when I started developing Sleep Services based on how incredible the positive treatment response was. I felt this had to keep going or it would be a disservice to our campus and community.”

That 2015 grant is what began Rolle’s interest in sleep. The head researcher of that grant, Aaron Eakman, associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy, asked her to be the lead occupational therapist providing CBTI services; she began training that day and never stopped.

“I love my work in sleep; it combines my undergrad training in biology with my master’s in occupational therapy,” Rolle said. “This is a perfect match between physiology, everyday activity, and daily functioning while giving me the ability to demonstrate to my clients how these things interact daily for optimal health. Once I began studying sleep, I was just fascinated by how smart our body and brain really are and how critical our behaviors are to our basic physiology. Sleep is the third pillar of health and it is very important for not just me, but our OT profession, to get more involved in supporting our clients with this critical skill.”

Through a different grant received in 2019 from the Anschutz family, Rolle and her colleagues developed a telehealth sleep service component linked to Buckley Air Force base and surrounding military bases in Colorado. With this service, they were able to provide sleep support to over 75 active-duty military personnel and veterans in Colorado. This service is also available to the community and is how Rolle continued providing CBTI services throughout the pandemic.

Training OTs in sleep programs

Rolle is now part of a group known as the “CBTI-JEDI-Masters,” a small group of CBTI providers across several different countries, who act as independent contractors to help be providers for other researchers’ grant work.

Rolle has been a pioneer for new occupational therapists in showing them how impactful and varied a degree in occupational therapy can be. Her work has reached far and wide and opened doors for occupational therapists across the board.

She has demonstrated the unmistakable benefits of using an interdisciplinary approach when working with a client, as well as pushing the importance of occupational therapy’s role in behavioral sleep health. She’s presented over 50 sleep presentations nationally and abroad and has had input in five sleep and CBTI publications.

Perhaps her most important work to date is through the training programs she created, notably the CBTI training she co-developed for occupational therapists, which is the only CBTI course designed specifically for occupational therapy.

The process to create this program began when Rolle and Eakman took the CBTI courses offered at the University of Pennsylvania. With the blessing from those course developers, Rolle and Eakman re-created a basic CBTI course for occupational therapists, offering it in-person over two summers and then transitioning to an online course once the pandemic hit. Those who are interested can register at any time throughout the semester, and do not have to be CSU students or even in the state of Colorado to participate in the course. Learn more and register for the course here.

She also developed a fully functioning clinical research sleep services program through the CCP, where she trained four occupational therapists in CBTI. She and her colleagues provide sleep services to community members across Colorado to improve sleep and mental health.

Rolle’s work in sleep has easily been her proudest achievement at CSU. At the University of Pennsylvania where she and Eakman first started their work in CBTI, several people asked what occupational therapists could be doing working with sleep. Now, those same people are some of their largest advocates for why occupational therapy should be involved in sleep work.

“I feel I went against the odds and did great work in sleep, not just for OT, but across disciplines,” said Rolle. “I developed a clinical research program that is helping people sleep better. Our research shows that when sleep improves, which it does for over 80% of the clients we serve, there is also a trickle-down in improvements in anxiety, depression, and dysfunctional beliefs about sleep. I am proud to say that I have made a difference in our NOCO community to help people sleep better and therefore have better daily functioning.”

Although Rolle doesn’t seek out acknowledgment for her work, she is thrilled to be recognized with National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy Impact Award.

“It is hard for me to even verbalize how much this award means to me,” said Rolle. “I am blown away and humbled to have been nominated by Linda Crawford. I can’t thank her enough for being an advocate of mine. I got into sleep as it sounded interesting, and I couldn’t let it go because of the outcomes I was seeing in my clients.”

One of the faculty members in CSU OT, Assistant Professor Lisa Fyffe, was Rolle’s professor when she was a master’s student.

“Natalie holds herself to a high standard of excellence and interacts with her clients with grace and integrity,” said Fyffe. “She is an expert on sleep for sure, but she is also an expert at empowering her clients to make positive changes in their lives. I am just so very proud of all she has accomplished and will accomplish in her life and career.”

Rolle’s Sleep Services program continues to expand and gain more recognition at CSU, and she is currently working with the University of Wisconsin-Madison to offer her CBTI course to their occupational therapy students in 2022.

About the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy Impact Award

The NBCOT Impact Award recognizes certified occupational therapy practitioners who demonstrate exceptional professional commitment through their dedication, hard work, and outstanding OT skills to improve their clients’ overall life satisfaction. The NBCOT is a national not-for-profit organization that provides certification to over 180,000 occupational therapy professionals. Learn more on the NBCOT website.

The Center for Community Partnerships is a service outreach within the Department of Occupational Therapy, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.