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Why is occupational therapy important in mental health

Benefits of Occupational Therapy for Mental Health

Did you know that occupational therapy originated in the mental health setting? The profession developed from the mental hygiene movement of the early 20th century. The first occupational therapists worked with American soldiers who came back home “shell shocked” after World War I, teaching them crafts and vocational skills that would improve their morale. From there, occupational therapy continued into community health centers after the deinstitutionalization movement in the mid-20th century. In fact, most occupational therapists once worked in mental health. That number has decreased over the years, but new opportunities are arising with recent changes in the mental health field.

Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the world. According to the World Health Organization, these are defined as “illnesses characterized by abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behavior, and relationships with others.” People may be diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses, dementia, as well as developmental disorders including autism (WHO). These illnesses can be debilitating and lead people to struggle with the normal activities of daily life. They can also cause significant disruption to a patient’s life and the return to a “normal life” may take a deliberate process of recovery.

The World Health Organization defines these major mental health conditions:

Depression: A common mental health condition characterized by “sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, tiredness, and poor concentration.”

Bipolar Disorder: A mental health condition characterized by alternating elevated moods, with an inflated sense of self-esteem, and depressed moods.

Schizophrenia and other psychoses: Severe mental health disorders resulting in “distortions in thinking, perception, emotions, language, sense of self and behavior.”

Dementia: A mental health condition affecting older people that leads to a deterioration of cognition beyond what is normal for aging.

Developmental disorders including autism: Intellectual disability and pervasive developmental orders that impair cognitive function, behavior, language, and communication.

Doctors may first prescribe medication and talk therapy to patients with mental illnesses. However, medication and talk therapy may not address the significant changes to the patient’s life that their mental illness may have brought about. That’s where the benefits of occupational therapy come in.

Today, occupational therapy is more widely practiced in rehabilitation and pediatric settings, but it’s still present in mental health recovery. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” Occupational therapy in the mental health setting is a collaborative effort between the client and the practitioner. Occupational therapists teach clients useful skills and strategies that can assist them on the road to recovery.

Occupational therapists will first seek to understand the activities that the client needs to do in addition to the activities that are most meaningful to them. It’s a holistic therapy that considers not only the health and wellness of the patient, but also the “occupations” that enable them to participate fully in life, including education, work, social activities, and leisure. Occupational therapy also focuses on instilling hope, motivation, and empowerment in clients, as well as helping them build resilience. OT can lead to lasting benefits for patients who are recovering from mental health issues.

Mental illness can be an extremely devastating medical condition. Not only can the symptoms lead to challenges in the activities of daily life, patients who suffer from mental illness often lose motivation and a sense of self-esteem. They often isolate themselves. The illness can be painful, something they suffered for an extended period of time, and that has profoundly disrupted their lives. Depression, for example, causes people to lose energy and motivation, which in turn can make them isolated. The isolation may lead to further negative thoughts and exacerbate their depression. An illness such as schizophrenia can lead to a significant deviation from the lives of the people around them, causing them to drop out of school, stop working, and potentially become ostracized from society.

Yet as many occupational therapists might explain, the need to do things is an essential part of being human. People do things that are necessary, and they do things because they want to do them. These are called the “occupations.” People who are suffering from depression may need help from a professional to regain the ability and motivation to participate in many activities. Occupational therapists work with patients to build skills and adapt their environment in ways that make it easier for them to do the things they both need and want, helping patients regain a sense of accomplishment and pleasure from taking action to help themselves.

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When working with mental health clients, occupational therapists may carry out the following interventions:

  • Teaching clients the skills of living independently
  • Teaching interpersonal and social skills
  • Educating clients on stress management
  • Educating clients on assertiveness
  • Educating clients on hygiene
  • Collaborating with clients on career choices
  • Collaborating with clients on job placement and career skills
  • Helping clients develop and accomplish leisure activities
  • Providing cognitive behavioral therapy to help clients think more realistically
  • Providing cognitive rehabilitation to address cognitive deficits

Occupational therapy can be an important part of a holistic program to treat mental illness. OTs collaborate with psychiatrists, therapists, social workers, and families to guide their clients along the journey to recovery. During treatment, they will communicate with the other healthcare workers in the program regarding how other aspects of the treatment are affecting the client’s ability to participate in the activities of daily life. They might observe and document whether a change in medication is creating more side effects than expected or whether the program is helping the client improve in cognitive ability, concentration, and morale.

At Rehab Select, occupational therapists work with the other members of the treatment to gain a detailed picture of the patient as a whole person. Throughout the course of treatment, each of the disciplines will meet weekly to discuss each patient and their progress, sharing ideas, observations, and strategies that help move the treatment plan forward. Learn more about Rehab Select’s occupational therapy program by scheduling a tour.

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Let’s explore the link between occupational therapists and mental health interventions

Image credit: BD Hypno Plus

Occupational therapy focuses on the therapeutic use of daily activities (or occupations) with individuals or groups. This is to improve their participation in roles, habits, and routines in the home, school, workplace, community, or other settings. An occupational therapist helps you to get back to your customary activities as much as possible. They work with individuals who have physical and cognitive impairments, psychosocial dysfunction, mental illness, and developmental (or learning) challenges. So let’s discuss the significance of occupational therapists and mental health interventions.

Occupational Therapists and Mental Health and Wellness

 An occupational therapist assesses each client holistically. For each client, they will consider various factors such as:

  • Values, beliefs, spirituality, mental function, sensory function, etc.

  • Performance skills (or motor, process, and social interaction skills)

  • Environment or context

  • Performance patterns (or habits, routines, roles, etc.)

Your occupational therapist will work with you to promote, establish (or restore), maintain, or modify tasks to help you participate fully in your daily life. Furthermore, occupational therapists will seek to prevent potential barriers to participation in desired activities. 

Is Occupational Therapy Considered Mental Health


Is occupational therapy considered mental health assistance?


Mental health is an essential component of all occupational therapy interventions. Occupational therapists provide mental health treatment and prevention services for all – children, youth, the aged, and people with severe and persistent mental illness. All interventions focus on improving each client’s function and independence. 

Occupational therapists work in mental health settings and they focus on enabling persons to re-engage in useful occupations. How do they do this? They help each client build a variety of skill sets, establish good habits and routines, set therapy goals, apply cognitive-behavioral techniques (CBT), and understand and counter physiological influences. 

Within the settings of children’s and adolescents’ mental health, occupational therapy focuses on these physiological influences. They teach clients how to identify and utilize self-regulation strategies to get them back to participating in meaningful activities like going to school or work and interacting with family and friends. 

Also, occupational therapists serve individuals with sensory processing disorders (SPD) and social-emotional learning dysfunctions. These conditions are usually seen within the children and adolescent segments of the mental health sector. 

Occupational Therapy and Community Mental Health

Did you know that occupational therapy has its roots in mental health? It’s true! The creation of the profession coincided with the early 20th century’s mental hygiene movement.

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Eventually, the call for deinstitutionalization of people with mental challenges led to the 1963 Community Mental Health Act. This act meant that occupational therapists and their assistants began working in community mental health. Today, occupational therapy within community mental health settings provides services such as:

  • Community mental health centers

  • Assertiveness community treatment (ACT) teams

  • Psychosocial clubhouses

  • Homeless and women’s shelters

  • Correctional facilities

  • Senior centers

  • Consumer-operated programs

  • After-school programs

  • Homes

  • Worksites

As mental health services have shifted from the hospital to the community, there has also been a paradigm shift in the service delivery philosophy. Traditionally, there was an emphasis on the medical model, but now the focus is on implementing the recovery model. 

This latter model acknowledges that recovery is a long-term process and clients are encouraged to keep participating in community activities until they can do so fully. Therefore, occupational therapy activities include finding and keeping employment, going to school, and living independently. 

The philosophical foundation of this recovery model is the integration of occupational therapy with community mental health. The goal of this integration is to increase your ability to live independently, as much as possible, in the community as you engage in productive daily activities. 

Occupational therapy facilitates your participation and is client-centered. It also plays a significant role in the success of those recovering within the community. Occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants are educated to deliver mental and physical health and wellness services, rehabilitation, habilitation, and recovery-focused approaches. They are also trained in clinical fieldwork that’s focused on assessing psychosocial issues. 

Examples of Occupational Therapy Within Mental Health

Here are some of the ways occupational therapy can help you


Occupational therapy interventions improve the health outcomes of those with mental health challenges. These interventions are found in the areas of education, work, skills training, health, and wellness, as well as cognitive remediation and adaptation. Some examples of occupational therapy interventions in community mental health include:

 Evaluating and adapting the home, work, school, and other settings to facilitate your optimal functioning.

  • Providing educational programs, experiential learning, and treatment groups or classes to address key issues. These issues include assertiveness, self-awareness, interpersonal and social skills, stress management, and role development (for example, parenting).

  • Helping clients develop leisure or avocational interests and pursuits.

  • Developing skills for independent living such as using community resources, managing your home, time, and medication, as well as being safe at home and in the community.

  • Providing training in daily living activities (for example, hygiene and grooming).

  • Consulting with employers about appropriate accommodations for their clients (as required by the

    1990 Americans with Disabilities Act


  • Conducting functional evaluations and ongoing monitoring for successful job placement.

  • Guiding and consulting with persons in all employment settings (including supportive employment).

  • Providing evaluation and treatment for sensory processing deficits.

Occupational therapy benefits individuals of all ages with a variety of mental illnesses. Furthermore, friends and family members also benefit from occupational therapy as they learn how to deal with the stress of caregiving and successfully balance their daily responsibilities in life.

Occupational Therapy Approaches

Occupational therapists use several evidence-based approaches within the mental health environment. They include:

  • Teaching coping and self-regulation skills that are useful in a variety of contexts.

  • Educating people about sensory exploration and implementing sensory approaches for self-regulation.

  • Utilizing CBT approaches to support your participation in desired activities. 

  • Identifying and implementing healthy, positive habits, and structure into daily routines.

  • Supporting the learning and implementation of key skills. These skills include those related to social competence (like making and keeping friends), coping with anger, solving problems, learning about social etiquette, and following rules. 

  • Evaluating factors that block your success in school, at work, as well as in your home and community.

  • Modifying your environment to support improved attention, participation, and decrease sensory overload at school and/or at work.

  • Educating parents about important behavioral and psychosocial approaches to enhance their children’s daily functioning.

  • Reducing restraints and seclusions within the inpatient setting. This is done via comprehensive assessments to determine what facilitates and bars your participation in:

    • Life tasks

    • Self-awareness and skills development

    • Developing attainable goals

  • Modifying your environment for optimal fit.

  • Promoting the use of self-regulation and sensory strategies.

  • Educating an interdisciplinary team on prevention techniques.

Can an Occupational Therapist Assist With Anxiety?

Occupational therapy plays a significant role in helping clients suffering from anxiety to manage their condition. An occupational therapist will work with you to identify how anxiety is affecting you, teach you valuable coping skills, and help you work towards achieving your future goals.  

Can an Occupational Therapist Perform Psychotherapy?

Occupational therapists are authorized to provide psychotherapy services. Furthermore, these psychotherapy services are performed according to the standards of the practice.

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What You Can Expect From a Mental Health Occupational Therapist

What are the expectations of your mental health occupational therapist?


Many people think of occupational therapy as applicable to pediatric services or physical rehabilitation. So they are often surprised to find occupational therapists working in mental health environments. So if you, a relative, or a friend is seeing a mental health occupational therapist, then keep reading to learn about how they can help you.

An Occupational Therapist’s Contributions to a Mental Health Treatment Team

An occupational therapist undergoes training in holistic approaches that are suitable for work in mental health settings. Their areas of training include:

  • Physical wellbeing

  • Cognitive assessment

  • Sensory strategies

  • Therapeutic alliances

  • Group activities

  • Participation in activities of daily living (ADLs)

  • Socio-emotional skills

Occupational therapy assists clients to participate in daily activities as independently as possible. 

Mental Health Occupational Therapy Interventions

Some of these interventions include:

Lead Groups

Occupational therapists are trained to create lead groups in areas that focus on:

  • Life skills

  • Job readiness

  • Therapeutic cooking

  • Money and time management 

  • Wellness recovery action plans (WRAPs)

  • Therapeutic leisure

  • Nutrition

  • Sensory groups

  • Independent living

Apply Calming Strategies

Occupational therapists use activities of daily living (ADLs) or occupations to aid in optimal mental health and welfare. They may also help you use coping mechanisms like listening to music, playing cards, writing, drawing, cooking, or cleaning. 

They are also experts at applying sensory strategies. Your sensory system helps you process information that you gather from your environment. Clients with mental health challenges have a compromised ability to process sensory input, which can lead to them feeling agitated and unsafe. 

Sensory strategies activate your basic processing systems like the vestibular, proprioceptive, and deep pressure touch, to help you process information. These strategies help you to feel safe and calm. These sensory strategies may prove very helpful for persons who may not be able to benefit from talk therapies. 

Sensory Rooms

Sensory rooms and equipment play a significant role in occupational therapy for mental health


Occupational therapists serve as a part of a larger movement to create sensory rooms in mental health facilities. These sensory rooms are safe havens for clients. These rooms also tend to have tools to help them de-escalate and relax. 

Evaluate Discharge Preparedness

Occupational therapists use a series of assessments to see if clients are ready to be discharged. These standardized assessments provide valuable information. In turn, this information helps your treatment team understand the level of care that’s required for discharge and to monitor your treatment progress. 

Address Physical Wellbeing

Another vital service that an occupational therapist provides is their physical rehabilitation background. Mental health issues are often accompanied by physical health issues. 

In a mental health environment, you may find that your occupational therapist:

  • Addresses general strengthening

  • Adjusts wheelchairs

  • Recommends adaptive equipment

  • Performs any other activity that’s within the scope of occupational therapy 

Advocate for Your Safe Independence

Make sure that you get all the help that you need


Your occupational therapist will assist you in mastering your daily activities. If your mental health condition compromises your ability to fully complete your daily activities, then speak to your occupational therapist about your concerns. Even if your occupational therapist doesn’t have the tools necessary to address your mental health requirements, they can advocate on your behalf and assist you to get the help you need. 

Mental Health Specializations

Many occupational therapists are experts in trauma-informed care and the recovery model. They gain this expertise either through their schooling, workplace training, or independent study. Some occupational therapists will then proceed to earn their Certified Psychiatric Rehabilitation Practitioner (CPRP) certification. 

Occupational therapists possess unique knowledge and skills that facilitate effective, holistic mental health interventions. Incorporating occupational therapy skills like sensory approaches and psychosocial techniques help clients to effectively function in their daily lives. 

How Long is Rehab After a Mental Health Incident?

After a mental health crisis, hospitalization is often necessary for stabilization and treatment. Some of the reasons for hospitalization include any conversations about suicide or death, self-harm, violence toward others, psychosis symptoms (like hallucinations and delusions), or a complete inability to carry out daily life skills. 

The length and severity of a mental health episode vary and so the length of stabilization also varies. However, most individuals stabilize within a few days of staying in a hospital. Studies have shown that the average length of hospitalization is 10 days. Hospital stays may also last longer when placed in psychiatric care than when in a regular hospital. 

However, rehabilitation is different as this phase occurs after a patient has been stabilized. The length of rehabilitation will also vary according to the individual, their prognosis, and how quickly they can learn and effectively implement coping skills. 

How Do I Find a Rehabilitation Program for Occupational Therapy for Mental Health?

We have shown that occupational therapists and mental health are intertwined. Are you wondering how to find an occupational therapy rehabilitation program for mental health? We have an outstanding option for you at Moving With Hope in Shelton, CT. 

We provide the best occupational therapists who effectively assist clients with a variety of mental health challenges. At Moving With Hope, we will also work with your medical team to create an effective treatment plan to suit your needs. We invite you to contact us today to begin your journey to health and wellness, inside and out.