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What To Know About a Mental Health Occupational Therapy 2022?

Karla Tafra

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Medically reviewed by Kathy Shattler, MS, RDN

mental health occupational therapy

The topic of mental health has become increasingly popular in recent years as more people began to open up about their own struggles with depression and anxiety. This conversation increased the demand for mental health therapy and opened space for many online platforms offering help in mental function in a convenient and fast-acting way.  

From treating a wide range of mental health disorders to focusing on a more occupational aspect and struggles people face in their day-to-day life, people can now choose what best fits their mental health needs and get help to improve their life quality

What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) helps people who are dealing with a mental illness to participate in their daily life, find a way to complete their tasks, and function in their environment.

Occupational therapists often deal with people who are attending rehabilitation therapy[1] for physical rehabilitation as well as those suffering from mental health or sensory processing disorders.

They perform generalized and individualized behavioral health assessments and address physical well-being needs, social interaction skills, and mental health conditions, which help offer better insight into a patient’s condition and how it affects their daily life.

People suffering from mental health conditions and psychosocial dysfunction can severely impact[2] their cognitive and behavioral abilities and make them inept at functioning independently in society.

It might also affect their memory, planning, and problem-solving abilities and how to best control their emotions and make decisions, especially in the face of sensory overload.

Does Occupational Therapy Assist Mental Health?

Occupational therapy was created for those recovering from an injury or following a rehabilitation program, but it quickly transitioned to the mental health setting and applied the same type of self-regulation strategies and stress management techniques to help those struggling to find a way to function in their environment and life tasks. 

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) is one of the best resources for current, and future occupational therapists looking to expand their practice, get a better education and improve their therapy tools that can help many people get the assistance they need in their recovery process by those individuals trained in trauma-informed care Trauma-informed care is a process of making one feel safe, empowered, and receptive to healing. 

The AOTA even offers accredited courses that can help you elevate your social interaction skills and increase your credibility in the mental health space. It seems like the national behavioral care efforts have managed to showcase[3] the potential benefits a mental health occupational therapist might bring to the workplace training table and help those with severe and debilitating mental health conditions in community-based settings. 

One of the first occupational therapy models, called Habit training, was created by Eleanor Clarke Slagle[4] in the early 1900s, and it’s what today’s occupational therapy techniques are derived from. Habit training focuses on finding a healthy balance between work, rest, and play, which showed as the most challenging life skill in people with mental health disorders. 

The American Occupational Therapy Foundation (AOTF) is a charity foundation with plenty of resources and educational content that helps support occupational therapy research as well as increase the public understanding of how a mental health OT is crucial to the physical rehabilitation and provision of occupational mental health to those who can’t even perform their basic activities of daily living (ADLs). 

It offers a variety of programs, volunteering opportunities, and many helpful resources for someone interested in becoming an occupational therapist and helping those who need it the most, such as those with developmental disorders. 

Benefits of Occupational Therapy For Mental Illness

Occupational therapy in mental health settings shows great benefits[5] in terms of recovery and integration into the community, mostly through activity-based interventions and tools that utilize self-regulation strategies and behavioral patterns.

For those having a really hard time completing their daily tasks and focusing on basic life activities, occupational therapists can greatly help cognitive function skills and provide guidance in life tasks.

Mental health occupational therapy assessments usually start with an evaluation that focuses on the individual’s personal health plan and current state. After that, the mental health treatment team comes up with a customized treatment plan to help them achieve those goals. The plan is focused on training and educating on life skills, sensory exploration, and psychosocial techniques to help increase the possibility of independent living. 

Many people who need occupational therapy skills deal with poor physical health and mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, as well as social-emotional learning dysfunctions that make them unable to live on their own, forcing them to rely on others for even the simplest tasks, from brushing their hair and taking a shower to put on their shoes and navigating traffic. 

As the program continues, occupational therapists work on modifying the plan and making adjustments where needed according to progress and how the person responds to their comprehensive assessments and treatment plans. 

Almost every occupational therapist is well-equipped with tools to help all ages and disabilities, from children to the elderly, as the goal is to help them participate in school, at work, and all other social settings, as well as aid in the safe performance of their ADLs.

Some of the most important benefits of occupational therapy for someone dealing with a mental health condition include:

  • Helping with daily tasks and organization skills
  • Helping develop positive habits
  • Creating a productive and functioning daily schedule
  • Helping find the best coping mechanisms for dealing with their emotions
  • Helping implement a good personal hygiene routine
  • Teaching how to interact in a social setting appropriately and implement social skills
  • Teaching how to interact in a work environment appropriately
  • Helping manage budget and finances
  • Helping improve decision-making skills
  • Helping implement better nutrition and exercise (although deterring from giving any sort of nutrition advice[6])
  • Helping learn how to use public transportation and navigate traffic
  • Helping with workplace training

Who May Benefit From Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy is one of the best options[7] for those who find even basic daily activities challenging. They are either crippled by a physical condition or a mental illness[8] that prevents them from being able to function independently in their social environment. 

Their struggles can range from not being able to brush their teeth and implement basic social skills to having difficulty navigating in traffic or focusing at work.

Whether it’s a child who needs help functioning at their school, a middle-aged woman who struggles at work, or an elderly man who can’t remember his name, occupational therapists help develop skills and improve cognitive functions through special skills to make them able to perform everyday life activities. 

Recently, the Occupational Therapy Mental Health Parity Act was introduced to the Senate to expand access[9] to occupational therapy in mental health settings under Medicare and Medicaid. This also creates a big opportunity to emphasize the value of occupational therapy that’s far beyond physical needs and concerns. 

The creators of the proposed bill believe that occupational therapists in mental health settings can have a positive effect on patient outcomes for those with a mental illness diagnosis as well as those with behavioral health challenges, just like it’s shown for those with physical ailments and diseases such as pneumonia, heart disease, acute myocardial infarction. 

Until this bill passes, many occupational therapists face problems with insurance and billing their services for strictly mental illness-related treatments. They currently work in many community centers, behavioral health clinics, homeless shelters, and women’s clinics, but their presence isn’t guaranteed. And these are the areas they’re needed the most. 

In some cases, they work alone or alongside occupational therapy assistants and are sometimes paired with a certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner. Together, they can come up with the best treatment plan for those who can’t perform their ADLs. 

If this bill gets approved, it will open many more opportunities for occupational therapists who want to deal with mental illnesses and cognitive impairments to help those who really can’t help themselves. 

The Bottom Line

Mental health occupational therapy interventions help those with mental health issues that either impair their social functioning and cognitive abilities or don’t have the financial means to get treated in an institution.

Occupational therapists in mental health settings focus on meeting the patient where they’re at, helping them implement coping skills for their emotional reactions, teaching them how to function in their daily life, and making them a functioning part of society by having them learn the most basic life skills. 

+ 9 sources

Health Canal avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in Health Canal, you can read more about the editorial process here

  1. Hopkinsmedicine.org. (2022). Occupational Therapy | Johns Hopkins Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. [online] Available at: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/physical_medicine_rehabilitation/services/rehab-therapy/occupational/index.html
  2. Hopkinsmedicine.org. (2021). Occupational Therapy for Mental Health | Johns Hopkins Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. [online] Available at: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/physical_medicine_rehabilitation/services/rehab-therapy/occupational/mental-health-ot.html
  3. Swarbrick, M. and Noyes, S. (2018). Effectiveness of Occupational Therapy Services in Mental Health Practice. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, [online] 72(5), p.7205170010p1-7205170010p4. doi:10.5014/ajot.2018.725001.
  4. Reed, K.L. (2019). The Beliefs of Eleanor Clarke Slagle: Are They Current or History? Occupational Therapy In Health Care, [online] 33(3), pp.265–285. doi:10.1080/07380577.2019.1619215.
  5. Gibson, R.W., D’Amico, M., Jaffe, L. and Arbesman, M. (2011). Occupational Therapy Interventions for Recovery in the Areas of Community Integration and Normative Life Roles for Adults With Serious Mental Illness: A Systematic Review. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, [online] 65(3), pp.247–256. doi:10.5014/ajot.2011.001297.
  6. Mahony, G., Haracz, K. and Williams, L.T. (2012). How mental health occupational therapists address issues of diet with their clients: a qualitative study. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, [online] 59(4), pp.294–301. doi:10.1111/j.1440-1630.2012.01028.x.
  7. Bolt, M., Ikking, T., Baaijen, R. and Saenger, S. (2019). Occupational therapy and primary care. Primary Health Care Research & Development, [online] 20. doi:10.1017/s1463423618000452.
  8. Pimouguet, C., Le Goff, M., Wittwer, J., Dartigues, J.-F. and Helmer, C. (2017). Benefits of Occupational Therapy in Dementia Patients: Findings from a Real-World Observational Study. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, [online] 56(2), pp.509–517. doi:10.3233/jad-160820.
  9. Congress.gov. (2021). Text – S.4712 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Occupational Therapy Mental Health Parity Act. [online] Available at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/4712/text
Karla Tafra

Medically reviewed by:

Kathy Shattler

Karla is a published author, speaker, certified nutritionist, and yoga teacher, and she's passionate when writing about nutrition, health, fitness, and overall wellness topics. Her work has been featured on popular sites like Healthline, Psychology.com, Well and Good, Women's Health, Mindbodygreen, Medium, Yoga Journal, Lifesavvy, and Bodybuilding.com. In addition to writing about these topics, she also teaches yoga classes, offers nutrition coaching, organizes wellness seminars and workshops, creates content for various brands & provides copywriting services to companies.

Medically reviewed by:

Kathy Shattler

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