What on Earth is Occupational Therapy!
“Harnessing the things we are passionate about and making them a central part of our lives – not just purely for the benefit of enjoyment, but also for our health and wellbeing”
– Joanna Thomas
It was in one of my student placements midway through my masters that the penny finally dropped. That moment when the theory became real, and I was hooked. Natasha (not her real name!) was a resident at a community mental health supported group home. Living with complex PTSD and severe anxiety disorder she was often despondent and generally ignored others, choosing to sit in the corner rather than risk triggering her anxiety and exposing it to the world – with one crucial exception.
When I came across Natasha, she was just discovering her love for gardening, specifically vegetables. She immediately fell in love with it and devoted herself to learning all the skills and knowledge required to master it. At first the difference between her attitude and demeanour being in the corner and being in the garden was stark. In the veggie patch she was transformed, vibrant, energetic, and talkative. Over time, however, her health improved to the point she was like that nearly all of the time.
Natasha would be tending her garden, harvesting the produce, sharing it with others, and talking about it with whoever would listen. Eventually, as she progressed with her passion it opened up opportunity for both paid and volunteer employment, giving back to others, and it gave her a pathway towards independent living.
That for me was the moment I saw firsthand the value, for all of us of any ability, of harnessing the things we are passionate about and making them a central part of our lives – not just purely for the benefit of enjoyment, but also for our health and wellbeing. Doing what we love is such a simple idea, yet when we focus on what brings us meaning and joy it can have dramatic health benefits.
So, what is occupational therapy?
In this context, “occupation” is not just your paid employment it includes every and any task you do on a daily basis. We derive meaning from what keeps us occupied, and meaningful occupation is what helps us discover our purpose and identity. Not that we are defined by what we do, but in doing what we love, we discover our strengths and passions.
Using ‘doing’ as a way of healing is not a new concept, it has been around for centuries. Furthermore, many of us already default to activities we find meaning in when we need to refresh or recover. Often we think of it as an “escape from reality”, but it is actually a very healthy thing to do.
Over the past year we have all seen how the lack of freedom to engage in the activities we enjoy has resulted in a marked decline in general health and wellbeing. Especially the simple pleasures and passions of life, seeing friends or enjoying live sport or music, travel and fitness have been limited and we can’t wait to get back to ‘normal’.
Who do occupational therapists help?
Occupational therapists work in all spheres of life, from hospitals to aged and child care, and out in the community with anyone that needs help, but the funny thing is most people have not heard about OTs.
The patients we work with are often unable to leave home due the lack of physical or emotional supports, their world can be small and they lack hope for the future. They could be kids who are finding it hard to learn in school to the best of their ability; or the older individual who wants to continue to live at home independently because this is their home – it means something to them. Or maybe it’s helping someone return to work once they have experienced a physical or emotional trauma, a car accident, or a stroke.
Occupational therapists also work at a population level to assist governments and groups like the United Nations at how we can improve health and wellbeing outcomes where complex social, behavioural, and economic challenges are preventing health education from being effective. OT’s take a holistic view of people’s health problems and its effect on their occupations, the things they find meaning in. By helping people see that the changes actually help them have greater fulfillment, people start to make changes willingly, not just because they are told to.
How do OTs do this?
We look at the person, their needs, the activities they need and want to do and the environment and sometimes this means we change the space, adapt the tasks, or support the individual to do this. This is done to ensure the person can engage in the activities of their choosing and live life with independence and autonomy. Occupational therapist put the person at the centre to ensure the approach meets their needs and enhances their dignity.
Doing as a form of healing and wellbeing is something we all instinctively do. Occupational therapists are simply trained to help you identify what is most important to you and help you overcome whatever challenges you face in doing what you love.
Just like with Natasha who found her love of gardening and in finding something to keep herself occupied, she found not only a path to living life to the full and overcoming anxiety and trauma, but also to discover herself and who she can be.