How Being A Parent Has Helped Me As A Therapist

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My work as an Occupational Therapist has it’s benefits. I work specifically in mental health with young adults ages 18-24. However, many often associate occupational therapy with pediatric work. In which case, I often hear people describe the idea that my profession gives me the skills to provide my daughter with above and beyond challenges that will give her an advantage in life.  

In some ways it does, but not how most would expect.  

Her Exceptional Fine Motor Skills

It was this Halloween a friend noted how well developed my daughters fine motor skills were for her age. My daughter can open jars, lids, and more things than I’d prefer. In fact, her well developed fine motor skills are slightly bothersome because we have to be so careful with what she can access. Halloween was not the first time others have made note of my daughters healthy development and made comments such as “I bet it’s great to have an occupational therapist as a dad.” However, being an occupational therapist has only helped me recognize the value of “day-to-day” activities. 

I mean, being an effective parent has as much to do with what I don’t do as what I do. 

A cute picture here
“The Itsy-Bitsy-Spider…”

The Gold Standard of Occupational Therapy

The gold standard of occupational therapy is “occupation.” That is to engage in the everyday tasks people do. This could include but is not limited to; showering, dressing, eating, playing, taking pets out for walks, going to the grocery store, and playing cards with friends. The mistake people often make about therapy when they imagine colorful cones, bins of odd shaped toys, and fancy gym equipment when doing those “therapy” like tasks, is that they are better than doing the everyday tasks I just listed. In truth, it is far better to be practicing showering, dressing, eating, playing, and so forth, than moving cones.  

In my opinion, the two things fancy therapy techniques and tools are used for is: 

  1. To support eventually practicing the occupation (showering, dressing, eating, playing etc.) 
  2. To avoid the miserable boredom of repeating the attempt at occupation if it’s not working. 

What I mean by number two is, if therapy is working on self-feeding, a patient can’t just practice eating for an hour or they would vomit. The use of therapy tools by occupational therapist is always only to support the eventual and hopefully current engagement in occupation or day-to-day tasks. That last sentence is not my opinion. 

Engaging in Everyday Tasks is the Best Therapy

It is not likely I could make my daughter a super human with therapy techniques. My daughter has well developed fine motor skills because I allowed her to help me hammer nails, wash dishes, prepare food, play with my special Star Wars Legos, and put many book shelves together. I was never providing therapy, but I was also not pushing her away from participating in every-day tasks. Kids are natural at engaging in occupation, the danger is when we stop them.  

Lots of Legos Here
Sharing the Lego Tradition

Even kids with developmental disabilities, the thing that is most beneficial, is for them to simply to be allowed to engage in day-to-day tasks even if specialized tools are needed.  

What parenting has taught me about my job as an occupational therapist, is the most effective therapy I can provide is often NOT me teaching and educating, but rather simply doing pumpkin carving. That is, simply to support and experience occupation with others. 

The day before Halloween I facilitated one of the best mental health groups yet. I measure this by my personal objective observation of joy and laughter. Group members said “I can’t believe I’m pumpkin carving in a locked inpatient unit” and “my girlfriend is going to be so surprised when I tell her what we did for group while I was here.” I even had one patient discharge and take her pumpkin home with her to show her kids. 

Pumpkin
Happy Halloween! I hope you enjoyed it and remained safe!

I don’t have lots of research for the post, just sharing a little something I’ve learned that I hope can be of value to you.

For more info on what Occupational Therapy is, click here.

For more about what I do, read: What I Teach for Mental Health

The Best Job Ever: Occupational Therapy in Mental Health

Picture of Coffee cups

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

 

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