Published on October 28th, 2016 | from CAMH

Occupational Therapists: Facilitating hope and recovery

By Natalie Yiu, Occupational Therapist, Learning Employment Advocacy Recreation Network (LEARN) |

*Note: client names have been changed to protect their privacy

I am often asked, “What is Occupational Therapy? Is it about helping people find a job or occupation?”

Yes, that’s  a part of it. Supporting young people to find work or continue schooling is a major focus of my role at LEARN, since many of my clients are looking to expand their independence and horizons after dealing with a first episode of psychosis.

But that’s not all. In a more general sense, “occupations” include all of the activities a person wants or needs to do in everyday life. Humans are occupational beings; the ability to participate in socially and culturally meaningful activities – from looking after ourselves and others, performing paid or unpaid work, to life enjoyment – are all intrinsically linked to a person’s physical and mental health.

Mental health occupational therapists (OTs) facilitate hope and recovery by empowering their clients to set meaningful activity goals and working together with them to overcome any barriers they may face.

Let me give you a few examples.

This morning, I meet with Colin, who is studying for a certification exam to help him return to his career after being unemployed for a few years. He feels discouraged by his study progress as he finds it difficult to sit for long durations and memorize material. As an OT, I am trained to analyze an individual’s strengths and capacities, the demands of an occupation and the environment in which the activity is performed. Colin and I talk about a variety of options and ways to improve his success, including establishing a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Action-based, Realistic, and Timely) study plan, practicing memory strategies, and adapting his environment to promote concentration. Colin decides to give a few approaches a try for the week. We then check-in again and update the plan as needed.

OTs can also use psychotherapy to help clients address obstacles in performing their desired activities. Holly came to me last semester after experiencing panic attacks at school. She had to complete multiple school projects with pressing deadlines. In addition to teaching her time management skills, I worked with her on learning and utilizing Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) skills to regulate and cope with difficult emotions. At our meeting today, she shared how she has been practicing her DBT skills. She has made much progress over the last 4 months, and she feels more “hopeful” and “confident” about this semester after gaining more knowledge and skills to effectively manage her stress.

OTs see interactive participation as a big part of the recovery process. We regularly host “Lunch and LEARN” groups in our clinic – once a week my clients collaborate on preparing a meal and enjoy a delicious lunch together. CAMH volunteer Gabriele Paternostro and Administrative Assistant Jennifer Brum help to make sure the group runs smoothly. On today’s menu we have healthy turkey pot pies, autumn harvest salad, and gluten-free macaroons! OTs use activities as therapeutic mediums to help clients achieve their goals. Through participation, clients can learn independent living skills like cooking, develop a more active daily routine, build their self-confidence, and foster socialization and a sense of community. I also encourage clients to contribute and take on leadership roles in my groups. Over lunch, they ask about the next Mood Walk, a walking/hiking in nature group that I run, and offer ideas of trails they would like to walk.

OTs are the champions of activity health and satisfaction, and are integral members of multidisciplinary healthcare teams. I collaborate closely with an incredible team of peer support workers, a family social worker, a GED teacher, case managers, and doctors at CAMH’s Slaight Centre for Early Intervention. Each of us brings our unique skills, perspectives and focus to inform treatment and promote well-rounded mental health care.

As part of my role, I also form partnerships with community organizations to facilitate access to essential services and resources for clients’ social determinants of health (e.g., income, employment, social support) and create inclusive programming. Today I receive great news from my client Tom who found work through the support of St. Stephen’s Community House Employment and Training Centre. I will continue to support him in preparing for his transition back to work and maintaining his employment.

This October, LEARN launched a PhotoVoice exhibition at Design Exchange to promote public education of stigma and mental health conditions in recognition of Mental Illness Awareness Week. I am following up with Brigitte Huard, Programming Manager at Design Exchange to plan new artistic and design workshops for clients this fall.

Promoting health through meaningful occupations and supporting clients to strive towards their goals is incredibly rewarding. As a mental health OT my clients also inspire and motivate me to examine my own activity balance and what I can do to better address my own physical and mental well-being.

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