Occupational therapy is an approach that helps people with physical, mental, or cognitive problems to overcome challenges and get the best out of life. The circumstances in which occupational therapy can be used are wide ranging – from post-surgery rehabilitation to mental health and physical disability support.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at what occupational therapy is, what it involves, and when it can be beneficial.
What is occupational therapy?
Occupational therapy is a science-based health and social care approach regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council. It supports people whose physical or mental health, or environmental and social circumstances make it difficult for them to take part in daily activities.
The aim of occupational therapy is to help people overcome these challenges and improve their quality of life. It’s important to note that the term ‘occupation’ doesn’t necessarily relate to jobs and careers, but rather the activities that define a person’s daily life – for example, seeing loved ones, going to the supermarket, or attending social events.
Unlike many other healthcare and rehabilitation approaches, occupational therapy can be used in a wide range of areas – including supporting those with mental health conditions, physical disabilities, post-surgery, and with degenerative diseases like dementia.
What does occupational therapy involve?
Occupational therapy involves working with an occupational therapist to find practical solutions that can help you regain, maintain, or improve your independence and involvement in daily activities.
To begin with, your occupational therapist will help you identify your strengths and pinpoint the particular areas of life that you struggle with – including at home, socially, or in the workplace.
For example, a mental health condition might make it difficult to attend work or go to the supermarket; while having a physical disability or struggling with age-related mobility might make it difficult to carry out household tasks such as making the bed or doing the dishes.
Practical solutions provided by occupational therapists can include identifying necessary equipment or home adaptations, supporting and encouraging people to face their fears, and developing coping strategies to make daily tasks less difficult.
For example, occupational therapy for trauma or other mental health conditions, such as social anxiety, might involve the use of tools like exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is a technique used to help people overcome fears, phobias, and anxieties by breaking the pattern of fear and avoidance.
When can occupational therapy be useful?
Occupational therapists work with people of all ages, including children. And, as previously mentioned, the approach can be used to treat and manage a wide range of conditions and needs, including those which are present at birth, develop with age, or are the result of an accident or change in mental state.
It can also be used as part of rehabilitation programmes, when someone is recovering from injury or illness, such as depression or following surgery.
Below, we’ll cover some examples of circumstances where occupational therapy can be used. You can also find further information on who can benefit from occupational therapy on the Royal College of Occupational Therapists website.
An occupational therapist might work with someone suffering from chronic pain to find ways that make it easier for them to perform activities which are important to them. Or, they might consider whether an activity or social environment could be modified or adapted to allow a person with a physical disability to take part.
Occupational therapy can be used to help people manage issues that develop as a result of ageing. This can include putting solutions in place to keep people safe and active, such as walking aids or changes to the home.
For example, if mobility issues are making it more difficult to get out of bed in the morning, an occupational therapist might suggest the use of equipment like bed rails to make things easier.
Occupational therapy can also be used to help treat conditions associated with age, such as Alzheimer’s disease, by offering strategies to help with memory.
Mental health conditions
Occupational therapists can make a huge difference to people recovering from mental health problems. It can help people to find ways to improve their mental health, for example, through self-care and meaningful activities.
An occupational therapist might work with someone to establish daily routines, help them build enough confidence and self-esteem to go out, or support the development of professional skills that’ll allow them to look for work.
For example, if your mental health negatively impacts your participation in leisure activities, an occupational therapist could work with you to improve motivation, concentration, and energy levels. Or, if you have a phobia, they may help you to develop healthier thought patterns and behaviours.
Rehabilitation and recovery
Rehabilitation aims to improve a person’s ability to carry out everyday activities following an injury, illness, or surgery. Occupational therapists form an important part of the rehabilitation process by helping people relearn or adapt to certain activities and regain their independence.
This can involve recommending home adaptations like stair lifts, widened doorways, and ramps for wheelchair access; or suggesting ways that daily activities can be modified to make them less difficult.
Occupational therapists can also help with rehabilitation in the workplace – for example, assessing your ability to complete work activities (and finding ways to assist you to do so), determining if any adjustments to your physical environment need to be made, or speaking to your employer about how your condition may affect your work.
Children and young people
Occupational therapy is sometimes used to help babies, children, and teenagers who are struggling with day-to-day activities at home or in school.
Examples of when occupational therapy might be used include when a child isn’t reaching developmental milestones (for example, crawling or walking), not learning at an age appropriate level, or is struggling with basic skills like holding a pencil, colouring, or understanding the concept of left and right.
End of life care
When it comes to end of life care, occupational therapists can help people to identify their goals and aspirations, optimise independence and daily function, and find ways to manage symptoms like pain and fatigue.
For example, they might offer techniques and strategies that help people conserve their energy for the activities that are most important to them. If a person wishes to come to the end of life at home, an occupational therapist might also help to organise any necessary equipment or changes to the home that allow them to do so.
How can I access occupational therapy?
Depending on your circumstances, occupational therapy is available for free through social services or the NHS. You can speak to your GP about a referral, or contact your local council to ask about your eligibility for occupational therapy.
Alternatively, you can pay for occupational therapy yourself. The Royal College of Occupational Therapists has a catalogue of qualified and registered occupational therapists.
You can use their online register of health and care professionals to check whether an occupational therapist is qualified and registered.
Occupational therapy can significantly improve the quality of life for people suffering from various conditions – from mental health conditions like phobias and anxiety to post-surgery and injury recovery.
For further reading, head over to the healthy mind section of our website. Here you’ll find everything from building confidence and self-esteem to counselling and motivation.
Do you have any experiences of occupational therapy that you’d like to share? We’d be interested in hearing from you in the comments below.