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The Role of OT in Mental Health

The demand for mental health supports has grown significantly in recent years. In 2018, there were more than 1.1 million people (4.6%) in Australia with a psychosocial disability according to Australian Bureau of Statistics1 (ABS). In 2018, 20% of Australians had experienced a mental or behavioural condition – and that was before the pandemic!

There has been Increasing recognition of the contribution of occupational therapists In the mental health field. In saying this, I often get confused looks when I explain that I am an OT that specialises in mental health. This post will walk you through how a mental health OT thinks and what our work looks like. Hopefully it will give you an appreciation of the valuable and unique perspective OTs bring to the mental health setting.

The focus of OT week Is Participation, Inclusion and Independence. These words are central to what OTs do in any setting or when working with people of all abilities. And they are totally relevant to the daily work of a mental health OT.

Occupational therapists broadly look at the person, their occupations (the things people want and need to do in their life), and their environment. OTs working in mental health often use a model called the Model of Human Occupation2 to understand how people adapt to disability or illness and rediscover satisfying and meaningful occupations.

Mental health OT’s look closely at these things:

  • How people are motivated and make choices for participation in occupations
  • How routines of everyday life are established and maintained
  • The person’s performance capacity, or skills, including their cognitive skills, motor skills, emotion regulation skills, and communication and interaction skills.
  • How the environment influences the person’s occupations. This could be their social environment, physical environment, cultural environment or institutional environment.

It is now recognised that severe mental illness can lead to significant difficulties in areas such as motivation for doing, organisation and planning, engaging in health-promoting routines, social connection and inclusion, cognitive functioning, physical wellbeing and managing emotions and coping with stress. OTs hone in on the person’s strengths, set person-centred goals and work towards enabling the person to live their best possible life. We focus on helping build the person’s Individual skills, adapt their occupations, or adjust their environment.

But what does this actually look like day to day, I hear you ask. In an assessment session, you might see me talking to a client about what Is Important to them, what they value, what their life roles are and what they want their lives to look like. You might see me observe a client make their toasted sandwich for lunch or do their grocery shopping. Or you might see me use a weekly schedule log to look at a person’s executive functioning skills and time use.

Mental Health Week Blog

In an intervention session, you might see me creating a cleaning checklist with a client to get them back into their household cleaning tasks they need to do. You might see me in a care team meeting with support workers providing strategies on how to help a client achieve their goals. You might see me helping a client to be more aware of their individual sensory preferences and then adapt their sensory environment so they can perform at their optimal level. Or you might see me making taco’s alongside a client. We are often told we have the fun job.

Mental health OTs might draw on evidence-based theories and tools from other areas too, such as psychological frameworks. You might see mental health OTs use interventions like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to inform their practice.

OT history buffs might already know that the OT field actually has its origins in mental health in the 1800s. At the time, people with mental health conditions were considered a threat to society and were often locked up in institutions. Pioneers of OT began to realise the health benefits of enabling people to do the things that were meaningful and purposeful to them. And the OT field was born.

Occupational therapy has a lot to contribute to the field of mental health. OTs bring a holistic, person-centred lens that empowers clients to live the life they want to live. Knowing more about the unique value OTs provide can help people experiencing mental health conditions connect with this vital service. So spread the word this OT week!

National 360 offers occupational therapy for clients experiencing psychosocial disability. We have OTs with expertise in mental health who also provide support to our therapists to ensure we provide great quality care. We also access the expertise of our multi-disciplinary team of physiotherapists, speech pathologists and behaviour support practitioners to help clients achieve positive outcomes.

You can find our referral form here.

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