The Relationship Between Mental Health and Occupational Therapy

 The motto of occupational therapy is “Living life to its fullest.” In order to help their clients do that, occupational therapists (OTs) are dedicated to helping people do the things they want and need to do in their daily lives and across their entire lifespan. 

Whether the client is unable to participate in their favorite activities because of a physical or mental illness, OTs use a holistic approach to adapt the environment or task to fit that person’s abilities. A client-centered approach is an integral part of the occupational therapy process—and that often includes gaining insight into a client’s mental health as well. 

What Can an Occupational Therapist Do?

OTs can, and do, work with clients of all ages and walks of life. They also work in many different settings depending on what an individual client and their family needs. An OT may work with clients who have been admitted to the hospital for a brain injury to help address any subsequent cognitive defects. 

They also may work with clients in a community health center helping them manage conditions like bipolar disorder. In both those situations, an OT would work with the client to help them live independently at home. Often, OTs will also do an assessment of a client’s living arrangements and make equipment recommendations to ensure they’ll be safe. 

OTs also work with people to adapt their work responsibilities to help accommodate changes in their physical or mental abilities. This holds true for children as well—OTs may help children develop the skills they need to use in school, like handwriting or managing their behaviors in the classroom.

Because OTs take a holistic approach to client care, mental health and wellness is another area that OTs take into consideration. And that consideration has a long history. 

The History of Occupational Therapy

A full understanding of the role of occupational therapy in mental health would be incomplete without an acknowledgement of Eleanor Clarke Slagle. Slagle was a social worker and early pioneer of using occupational therapy for mental illness, and is affectionately known in the field as the “mother of occupational therapy.” Slagle trained students at the Hull House, and started a therapy program for state mental institutions in Illinois in 1918. Her program’s success led Slagle to direct similar programs in mental hospitals in other states, and established that occupational therapy is inextricably linked to mental health.

Elanor Slagle


The Development of Habit Training

Slagle was interested in the Mental Health Hygiene Movement, which focused on the promotion of mental health and prevention of mental illness, rather than reactive treatment. With input from psychologist Adolf Meyer, one of the leaders of the movement in the US, Slagel was one of the first people to incorporate habit training into occupational therapy treatment models. 

Habit training focuses on the balance of activities in the areas of work, rest, and play, to establish new habits and restore mental health. When used by OTs in treatment, habit training can help individuals manage and maintain their personal hygiene, take public transportation to work or school, and learn coping mechanisms for certain mental health concerns. 

The Deinstitutionalization Movement

In the 1960s, the Deinstitutionalization Movement pushed for mental health facilities to close, and people with mental illness were instead treated in community settings. Instead of institutions, they lived in and got support from places like groups homes. 

As part of that shift, the service delivery method also shifted from the medical model, which focuses on physiological causes and often uses medication as part of treatments. Instead, there was renewed focus on the recovery model, which believes that it’s possible to recover from mental illness and that a client-centered approach to care is best. At this point, the role of OTs in community mental health became essential. 

Occupational Therapy’s Role in Mental Health

The main issue occupational therapists work to resolve is occupational deprivation, which is a client’s prolonged inability to participate in necessary and meaningful activities—for reasons outside of their control. Occupational deprivation can lead to clients feeling social isolation and generally hopeless if left unresolved, which can compound existing mental health issues or even introduce new ones.

This is why it is crucial for occupational therapists to take a holistic approach to treatment. OTs need to consider not only the physical factors of illness or injury, but also the psychosocial and emotional needs of our clients as well.

Mental health professionals are well-versed in the mental and emotional impact of injuries, disabilities, or disease. Traumatic or chronic pain, the loss of a role, or general intense feelings of hopelessness can lead to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Clients with these disorders may already be seeking psychological or psychiatric treatment, and OTs who are working in these settings can offer them another treatment approach. For clients who don’t want to or don’t need to to take medication, OTs can work with them to encourage meaningful, routine self-care practices. Things like using essential oils, journaling, or practice meditation can often help manage some of the effects of mental health disorders.

What is Interprofessional Collaborative Practice?

Interprofessional collaborative practice (ICP) occurs when multiple health workers from various professional backgrounds work together with patients and their families to deliver high quality, comprehensive care. The benefits of ICP include improved access to healthcare interventions, increased coordination of care between patients and their family, increased safety in healthcare, efficient use of resources, increased employee satisfaction with reduced stress and burnout in the profession, and much more.

Occupational therapists and other mental health professionals are perfectly suited for the execution of ICP. Both fields value a client-centered approach to care, which values the client’s input and their comfort level. A partnership between an OT and a mental health professional allows for more focus on the needs of an individual client and their families, and ensures they get the best, more comprehensive care possible. 

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