What is Mental Health OT? 

People often confuse occupation for vocation, meaning therapy strictly relating to employment or job status. However, occupational therapy (OT) actually began with mental health in mind.  

The civil war sparked the thinking that led those observing bed-ridden soldiers during WWI to believe the soldiers were suffering more from mental debilitation than physical debilitation. Long story short, 6 figures initiated the official practice they called occupational therapy. This is because as humans we must ‘occupy’ our time with goal-directed, meaningful tasks that make up our daily routine. The WWI vets often suffered from PTSD and depression, OTs helped them engage in craft and trade skills such as leather work and pottery. Sometimes, this meant they had to create a prosthesis for missing limbss, or teach skills in groups.  

Today, creating a prosthesis and leading groups is only a small sample of the variety of OT roles, however, now those roles tend to be separate and more specialized. This is why you may see an OT working with kids in schools, adults in nursing homes and rehabs, or mental health facilities like myself. My primary role, as an OT in mental health, involves more group leading.

Want to know what I believe is the hardest part of working with groups in mental health? 

Emotional intelligence. 

It’s like the challenge of public speaking plus the fact most people don’t want to be there. If you were dealing with an incredibly difficult time in your life, would you want to hang out with me?

Well maybe you would, or at least tell me that, but often that is not the case for people in the hospital.  It’s important as a mental health worker to be able to recognize my own emotions and manage myself tactfully in order to be effective at working with others having a difficult time with their mental health. It takes a delicate approach and equally important, practicing what I teach.  

What Topics Do I Teach? 

The primary categories my groups go into, include;  

It’s not simply the topics that define occupational therapy groups, it’s the way its taught. Again, occupational therapy is how we ‘occupy’ our time with meaningful and purposeful activity which makes up our routine. My job is to help create a healthy routine through meaningful tasks or activities. The challenge is people suffering from whatever is happening in their life, that led to visiting a mental health unit, often clouds their vision of recognizing anything as meaningful. What can be considered meaningful is also broad and abstract.  

How I Make Groups Meaningful

In some ways, it can be a shot in the dark to figure out what is meaningful for the people I work with. We have assessments, but not everyone is interested in answering questions or having a discussion. The same group done the same way can one day be loved and another day be hated. I was asked a difficult question about group topics once. The question was: 

Do you think some groups are more occupational than others?  

I have thougt a lot about that question. The short answer is no. This is because what is meaningful at 10am versus 2pm versus 4pm can be different and change from day to day or even hour to hour. 

Want to know something that might surprise you?  

Sometimes occupational therapy group can be playing Wii tennis. It can be often that Wii is the only alternative. I frequently change the plan immediately before starting a group if need be, or take multiple plans with me and decide what we’re going to do depending upon who shows up. 

Would you want to exercise right after lunch or listen to a lecture at the end of the day?  

How I Make Groups Interesting 

One of my biggest roles is adapting the right task for the right time and person. Adapting often means, making things interesting such as mindfulness. Mindful eating has been historically taught with raisins. Can someone say BORING! I use Lindt chocolates for this reason!  

It’s like any sales job to excite people about positive health changes. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned with mental health treatment techniques is, before they can be effectively taught, you have to believe in them yourself. First, I successfully implemented them in my life, then I learned how to teach them in a fun way.  


I said in my last post I was going to share what groups I lead, so I hope this peeks your interest in mental health topics. Want to know more about those topics? 

Are you interested in how you can make effective goals and actually implement them now so you don’t have to come to my groups later? 

Next I’m going to share about those specific group topics in individual posts.

If you missed my last post, click the link below!

The Best Job Ever – Occupational Therapy in Mental Health

If your a therapist interested in some ideas on how to make your therapy more engaging: START HERE.

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1 Comment

  1. Nice comment , “Are you interested in how you can make effective goals and actually implement them now so you don’t have to come to my groups later? ”
    While said partially in jest, the spirit of the statement is so true. Putting off mental health does not just delay the problem to deal with later – time can often make it worse. It is best to work on it right away.

    Thank you for sharing. I am glad you are able to be patient and truly understand where your clients are coming from. Thank you for the work that you do!

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