Erin’s final year studying Western Herbal Medicine

Torrens University

The ATMS (Australian Traditional-Medicine Society) reached out to Erin Shea to talk with her about life as a student of Traditional Medicine. You can watch the interview in the video at the end of this post. We also shone the spotlight on Erin and asked her to give us some insights into why she chose to study a Bachelor of Health Science in Western Herbal Medicine at Torrens University Australia.

Erin’s Bachelor of Health Science student journey so far

‘I’m in year three, with less than a year to go. I’m studying part-time, doing about two-thirds of the course load, because I have a job as well so I’m trying to not stress myself out too much.’

‘When I started the Bachelor of Health Science degree, I was travelling a lot for work and at that time, pre-COVID, Torrens was one of the only universities that offered the course I wanted to do online. I was really excited to discover that I could study online. It made my life so much easier being able to work around my job and follow my own study schedule. As well, I could go to the online classes, where I could ask questions and interact with other students and lecturers. During the pandemic, of course, other universities started to offer online courses too.’

‘I’m on campus now, at the new Surry Hills campus, and I’ve just started doing my clinic subjects. I actually have my first clinic this week, which is very exciting because I’ll finally get to put the theory I’ve learnt into practice.’

‘The COVID restrictions stopped, I’m a bit more settled and not travelling for work, so I thought, You know what? I’m going to go onto campus. Post-COVID, I needed some human connection, and I think as I got further into my studies, there was also a stronger need for that connection with other people to really deepen my learning. I still have one subject online, so I’m doing a mixed method of study at the moment.’

Erin’s clinical placement at The Practice Wellbeing Centre

Erin was getting ready to run her first session at The Practice Wellbeing Centre, at the Surry Hills, Central Sydney Campus, when she gave this interview. This student-led clinic offers a holistic approach to health in Naturopathy, Western Herbal Medicine, Counselling and Nutrition for the general public. All sessions are supervised by qualified and experienced practitioners.

‘In a previous subject in the course, I could observe everything that was going on in the clinic. Now, I will start to see patients myself. Obviously, everything I prescribe will be approved by my supervisor first, to make sure that I’m on the right track. It’s great because I get the practice and the patients get cheap access to naturopathic and herbal medicine.’

‘I don’t think I’ll be seeing patients tomorrow because it’s Week One. It will be an introductory time and we’ll be getting used to all the systems that we use in the clinic, such as logging patients’ details into our secure system so their confidentiality is protected. After that, when a patient books in to see us, I will be sitting in the clinic with them and asking them 101 questions about their life, their health, their mental health, maybe the relationships that they have and whether they have a lot of support around them, what their diet’s like, what their exercise and movement are like, their sleep and hygiene.’

‘Depending on what brought them through the door in the first place – whether they need support with getting their digestion right or maybe they’re getting sick a lot, or they’re not sleeping well – I’ll think about what herbs or lifestyle and nutritional changes could help them and discuss my ideas with my supervisor. And then we’ll blend up liquid herbs, or prepare teas, or makeup creams, to suit the patient.’

Erin’s studies in Western Herbal Medicine let her follow her passion

‘I love working with plants so much. Before I studied Herbal Medicine, before I even knew that Herbal Medicine existed, I started a Bachelor of Environmental Science course because I love plants. I was always really interested in plants and how they grow and how we interact with them, and what they do for us when we eat them. Also on a more psychological level, how they bring us a sense of calm and connection to place. All those different elements of our relationship with plants interested me. When I learned that Herbal Medicine existed, I decided that might be a more intimate way to work with plants than what I was doing in Environmental Science.’

‘I really like how everything ties together in Herbal Medicine – it’s this interesting intersection of our mental health, our environmental health and our physical health. So that’s what originally drew me to study Herbal Medicine.’

How did Erin find out about the Herbal Medicine course?

‘I lived in New York for a little while, and you would think that New York would be the last place you would learn about Herbal Medicine. I was working there, away from all my friends and family, and I was a bit lonely in such a big city. So I started looking for different classes to keep myself busy, and I found a Herbal Medicine class. They were going into the Catskills, north of New York, on a foraging trip where we would learn to identify plants in the wild.’

‘It was just incredible We picked plants and made medicines and learned about their use and how the people in that area traditionally have used them. Interestingly, a lot of them were weeds, such as dandelions, and were very small and unassuming plants that you wouldn’t look at twice. The trip gave me a whole new perspective on how I saw plants.’

‘I started apprenticing under a few herbalists in New York. Then when I came back to Australia, I swapped from Environmental Science to the Herbal Medicine degree.’

Using social media to promote traditional health practices

Rhiza.apothecary is Erin’s Instagram account, where she shares photos that reflect ‘the ecology of healing’.

‘Social media is such a big part of modern life, and it can be used either in a mindless manner or in a positive way. If I tell someone about herbal medicines, they can find it hard to understand what they are or how they’re useful if they’ve never experienced them before. Humans are really visual, I think. If I show someone a video of me making this big, beautiful brew of herbal tea or something as simple as that, because it’s visual, there is an element of inspiration or aspiration to it. That is more heartfelt than just telling someone, “Yeah, I brew a cup of tea with these plants in it.”

‘I believe social media is a good tool to help people understand what herbal medicine can look like in the modern era. A lot of people don’t really think about herbal medicine as being contemporary or relevant, or maybe they think it is too complicated. So, I like that you can just watch a video and say, “Oh, that’s a really simple and easy way to integrate herbal medicine into my life.”

Erin shares a study tip for other Western Herbal Medicine students

‘For students who are studying Western Herbal Medicine or Naturopathy, there are so many plants to learn about that it can be quite overwhelming. Traditionally, maybe we would’ve had only about 20 because that’s all that grew around us. Now, we have access to plants from all over the world. When I’m learning about a plant, if I’m trying to remember what its characteristics are, I try to drink the tea or make it into a cream or oil or do something very practical with it. I have a lot of plants growing on my balcony and I try to grow the plants I’m learning about. That lets me connect with them in a less abstract way.”

‘When you look at a list of things a plant does, it’s very easy to forget them, whereas if you also have the plant and you’re watching the flowers bloom, or you are drinking the tea and can actually taste it, I think it’s a lot easier to make connections and learn that way. It’s almost embedded in your senses, not just in your brain. That would be my number one tip for learning about herbs; I’ve found it to be very helpful.’

What’s ahead for Erin?

‘I’m going to keep my options open because you never know what’s around the corner. I love growing plants and I love blending teas and I love the opportunity to help people learn more about plants. For the moment, I’ll focus on working in the student-led clinic for the first time and getting through that!’

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