The Best Job Ever: Occupational Therapy in Mental Health

Mental Health Occupational Therapy

Following Your Passion

First, I want you to think about a few mental health questions.

Who has ever dreamed of being an Olympic athlete?

How about a sports coach?

Personal trainer?

Or, if your like me, who of you would have been happy just being the towel or water boy?

What does this have to do with mental health? Well, the goal of this article is to share a brief picture of what occupational therapy looks like in mental health and what I do on an inpatient mental health unit. This is difficult to address without first addressing the “follow your passion” mantra. “Follow your passion” is a cultural belief common today; whether that is good or bad is another story, but the reality is, this belief exists.

It could be argued that most kids dream of being athletes and coaches because they imagine waking up for work doing what they love, which is generally sports. Similarly, it might be more common today that kids want to be video game designers and testers than athletes. Again, to wake up, go to work, and do what you love all day long.

Do you suppose if your job was to be an Olympic athlete, you would be in good shape and physically fit? Of course! If your job was to test video games, you would be great at video games too.

I played Junior Varsity basketball my Sophomore year of High School and was the only player who never scored. Sure, I was a bench warmer, but the other bench warmers still scored once in a while.

Olympic dreams crushed.

It didn’t help I never made it to 6-foot-tall, like the doctors always said I would on that little curvy graph they showed me every childhood checkup. They lied.

So maybe that’s why I gave up my Olympic athlete dreams. But was that really so bad?

A Mental Health Athlete

Now let me ask you another question: How’s your mental health doing?

When was the last time you dreamed of being a mental health athlete?

Or as that might translate better, do you find yourself wishing you were happy?

How many of you would simply like to have the energy to wake up, show up at work, or simply make it to work without hating yourself?

Well, imagine your job was to practice mental health techniques with people like an Olympic coach teaches exercise. That is just what I do and I believe all of us should value mental health like physical fitness. Coaches are not always in perfect shape, and neither am I. But I do practice what I teach. I “take my own medicine” if you will. In the same way, practicing mental health is not only for therapists like exercise is not just for Olympians.

You see, I’m an occupational therapist (OT) working in a locked, inpatient, mental health unit. This unit is focused specifically on helping young adults, which are ages 18-24ish. The primary cause for arriving to my unit is being a danger to self or others, generally from attempted suicide, suicidal ideation, self-harm, manic episodes of bipolar disorder, and active or new onset episodes of schizophrenia. Nearly everyone is a mix of these challenges and more to top it off.

Crazy right? Not so much, it turns out, one thing you would learn quickly if you spent time on an inpatient mental health unit, is the people that end up there are like you and I; students, workers, daughters, fathers, dreamers, and world travelers all the same. It’s quiet unlike One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Shutter Island.

What’s My Role as an Occupational Therapist?

I asked you a question earlier about how your mental health was doing?

If your mental health is not doing well, then like I mentioned, you might think of the difficulty getting out of bed in the morning or getting to work, feeling fatigue and despair which makes it harder to do the things you love. Or, what you might be thinking of is more basic, the things you do on a day-to-day basis like showering or going to the store to shop for groceries.

All those “day-to-day” activities is what my profession calls “occupations” hence, occupational therapy.

By the time people end up on my unit, their “day-to-day” activities are severally disrupted by mental health that is not doing well.

If you were on the inpatient mental health unit, the most stereotypical step of the day is that staff do their best to wake you up and get you to come take your medications. Which is given with incredible effort by staff to be respectful of patients’ personal wishes and boundaries.

Then comes breakfast.

After that, comes the first of two “community meetings” in which everyone is encouraged to attend. Here staff share the schedule for the day and expectations of respect for others. I do my best to attend the majority of these morning community meetings to share what I call, my “OT schpeel.”

Which goes similar to this…

“Hi everyone, my name is Grant, I’m an occupational therapist and I lead a variety of groups here. Occupational therapy is dealing with how we ‘occupy’ time with our ‘routine’. Wake up, shower, get dressed, eat, work, talk with friends, journal or read; that’s healthy living. When mental health stops that routine, I focus on strategies to practice that routine for healthy living. If dealing with depression, coping strategies might be needed, or groups with physical activity. It might be focusing on an craft project, or simply manage the anxiety of being around others. These day-to-day activities is occupation and practicing is the therapy.”

…End of Mental Health focused OT schpeel.

Now, you may or may not have seen OT in multiple settings. Understanding the value of healthy routines to OT may make more sense when looking at OT in different settings. A school OT is addressing the school aspect of a child’s routine, the nursing home OT is helping your Grandma continuing to “do” the routine gardening she always loved while in a wheelchair.

While occupation is commonly synonymous with “vocation”, work can be apart of your routine and therefore can be something an OT would address if you had an injury or mental health challenge. However, patients on the inpatient mental health unit where I provide OT, are far more focused on getting through the day than work or school. That is why we are not addressing purely job skills. Yet, at the same time it’s important to recognize that coping skills is very much need in the work place too.

Conclusion

If you had asked me where I wanted to work, I would have never thought it was going to be mental health. Mental health was not my passion. Yet, since I’ve begun practicing all the mental health strategies and exercises I help facilitate on the unit I work, I have begun to value both OT and mental health in a new way.

In this way, I bring my positive mental health from home to work, and my skills and practice from work to home. That is why I want to share this with you.

I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit about OT in mental health. More so, I hope you are encouraged to value your mental health and not feel pressure to ignore mental health as only for the ill.

Are you interested in WHAT kinds of things we practice in OT group treatment sessions? Read my next post found at the link below:

What I Teach for Mental Health

 

You can expect Bi-weekly blog posts. For more updates, checkout my social media channels found in the links below.

Join Me

6 Replies to “The Best Job Ever: Occupational Therapy in Mental Health”

  1. Nicely written. Thank you for sharing. I think it is OK to follow your passion but be open to new experiences along the way. I just finished supervising a semester of interns in the field. Several of them wound up in placements that were unexpected and not necessarily their passion but by dealing with it with an open mind they had marvelous learning experiences about the field and about themselves.

    I also agree that we all need to think about our mental health and keep working on it just like we do with physical health and exercise. It is time for the stigma around mental health to be removed! Thank you for your post. I look forward to the next one.

  2. Hello!
    I am an occupational therapy student in my final year of school. I’ve always had a strong interest in working in a mental health setting (specifically MH even though it is addressed in all settings essentially 🙂 I really like how you explained OT in a a MH setting with the day to day activities such as working on coping strategies.
    Can’t wait to read your next post
    Riley

    1. Awesome job, you’ve almost made it through OT school and soon we’ll be colleagues. I love the topic of “coping strategies” because it is so undefined and broad, I am really grateful for your feedback!

  3. Hello Grant,
    I am starting OT on an ADU floor at my hospital, same population you work with! Would love to connect with you & ask a few questions?

    Are you only running groups? Do you eval each patient as well?
    If you have the time to touch base, I would appreciate it!

    Best,
    Nicole

    1. Hey Nicole, Thanks for commenting. I am always interested in connecting because I keep learning everyday, my best ideas are never my own. Instead they usually come from other practitioners or patients! I’ll email you directly to answer your questions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *