Occupational Therapy and Mental Health
The mental health treatment journey requires a collaborative effort by many people — the individual, his or her caregivers, support providers, doctors, nurses, teachers, aides, counselors, therapists, and social workers. This collaborative process allows everyone to work together to reach a specific goal: improving the individual’s quality and enjoyment of life by identifying and meeting appropriate behaviors and skills.
Occupational therapy often is misunderstood in this process. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, the primary goal of occupational therapy is to support and enable each person’s “health and participation in life through engagement in occupation.”
“Occupation” does not solely mean work. Some examples of occupations include time spent on personal hygiene, preparing a meal, managing finances, painting a picture, attending a community leisure course, and socializing with others. Occupational therapists enhance people’s ability to live meaningful and satisfying lives.
The purpose of occupational therapy can best be described by the profession’s motto, “Occupational therapy: living life to its fullest.” All individuals have a right to live life to its fullest. An occupational therapist can help people consider not only their needs, strengths, abilities, and interests, but also their physical, social, and cultural environment.
Origins of Occupational Therapy
While many commonly think of occupational therapy as physical rehabilitation after injury or illness, it actually has roots in mental health.
Occupational therapy’s emergence can be found as far back as eighteenth-century Europe. At a time when mentally ill people were treated like prisoners, a “moral treatment movement” began to evolve. While the previous treatment model was associated with punishment, brutality and idleness, the moral treatment movement sought to encourage kindness and the therapeutic value of engagement in purposeful activities.
The first occupational therapy treatment model, called Habit Training, began at Johns Hopkins in the early twentieth century. This approach proposed that in mentally ill people, occupational activities such as work, rest and play had become unbalanced. Early occupational therapists introduced therapeutic occupations such as weaving, art, and bookbinding. These goal-directed activities were used to help individuals learn new skills to be productive, and derive therapeutic benefits of a balanced daily schedule.
The occupational therapy profession grew as wounded soldiers returned from World War II, and then surged again in the 1970s with the medical field’s increase in specialized skills and knowledge.