Written by

Rebecca Morley-John

When I tell people I’m an occupational therapist, I wait for their predictable blank stare. Shortly after, I’m usually asked a follow-up question along the lines of: “so… you help people to find a job?”

Well, not quite.

Occupational therapy is not actually about helping people to find employment, although this isn’t completely wrong either. It all comes down to the definition of “occupation” – which is a much broader term than you might imagine.

If you were to search any dictionary for the word “occupation”, you would find a definition such as this:

Occupation (noun): An activity in which one engages

For many of us, this does relate to our vocation, as it’s how we spend most of our time. However, not everyone is employed in paid work, and even those who are can agree that work does not consume 100% of our day.

Our daily lives are characterized by a diverse mix of occupations – some of which are applicable to us all (like showering, eating or dressing), and some of which differ between groups of people. For example, play would be considered a primary occupation for a young child, but unlikely to be a central occupation for an adult. Similarly, a retiree may have more capacity to engage in hobbies or volunteering than someone who spends a considerable amount of time at work or parenting young children.

As you can see, we each have a range of daily activities that “occupy” our time and often add meaning or value to our lives. However, certain health conditions (both physical and mental) can impact, inhibit or challenge our ability to participate in the occupations that we want to do and need to do – and this is where occupational therapy fits in.

Occupational therapists believe that engagement in meaningful and purposeful occupations contribute to a person’s quality of life, sense of achievement, identity, self-esteem and well-being. When a person experiences mental health challenges, occupations that were previously fundamental or “basic” (such as personal care or leaving the house) may now feel overwhelming. Participation in the roles and routines a person once enjoyed may also be greatly impacted, which can inhibit recovery and perpetuate their mental health challenges.

Occupational therapy is based on the philosophy that people with mental health conditions can (and do) recover to lead meaningful, satisfying and productive lives. Mental health occupational therapists collaborate with individuals to find practical solutions, overcome barriers and modify the task or environment to enhance a person’s capacity to function and participate in the activities they prioritise. This is not a “one size fits all” approach but rather unique to each person, their circumstances and their recovery goals. I heard it best when I overheard a colleague once explain: “OTs just help people live – whatever that might look like for them.”

People are often surprised to learn just how broad occupational therapy can be. Common occupational therapy interventions in mental health include:

  • Support to overcome cognitive, social or sensory-processing difficulties
  • Identifying and implementing healthy habits, rituals and routines to support a healthy lifestyle
  • Support in the creation and use of a relapse prevention plan, including coping strategies and practical support options to promote long-term health and reduce risk of relapse
  • Support around the adjustment to life roles and change (such as parenting or employment)
  • Education on community-based resources and support groups, as well as linkage to these Assistance with time management, occupational balance and establishing healthy routines
  • Capacity building and improving confidence and safety with activities of daily living (such as meal preparation, shopping, budgeting and accessing the community)

Despite the varied nature of our work, the occupational therapy process remains consistent. If you work with an occupational therapist, you can expect a process that looks similar to this:

  • Assessment: This involves a comprehensive discussion to learn more about the person, their occupations, and their environment. The assessment process helps to paint a picture of the person’s current functioning in activities of daily living and may include cognitive, sensory or environment assessment. This is an important step in identifying what occupations and life roles are most meaningful to the person.
  • Goal setting: A vital part of the therapy process is summarizing what issues are getting in the way of a person’s optimal functioning – and how these can be overcome with therapy. This stage defines the priorities for therapy and confirms what goals are most important to the person.
  • Intervention: The treatment plan is designed in collaboration with the person. Treatment is specific to each individual person, reflecting their unique needs and goals. The intervention stage varies between individuals – depending on their mental health condition, challenges and goals.
  • Evaluation/follow up planning: This involves a review of a person’s goals and a discussion around whether further therapy is required. A person finishes therapy once they feel satisfied that their goals have been achieved and/or there are no ongoing occupational issues outstanding.

You may now have a better understanding of the how occupational therapy earned its title – and hopefully see how this health profession encompasses so much more than the assumption of simply helping a person find work.

To learn more about how an occupational therapist can help you, or for more information, get in touch with Pandion Health today.