If you are a people person who wants to make a difference in people’s lives, perhaps you might consider working as an Occupational Therapist!
By Amy Vandervegt, OT
I didn’t know what Occupational Therapy (OT) was until my very last months of High School. Originally, I wanted to be a Primary School Teacher. I wanted to do something that made a difference to people’s lives, was different every day, and did not have me stuck at a desk. My Dad sustained a back injury when I was 5 months old, and I remember going with him to his Physiotherapy sessions as part of his ongoing treatment. My Mum told me that Dad also received OT very early on, and recommended this as something to study at university. I decided I would give it a go which turned out to be a good choice!
OT is such a broad and varied career. We work with individuals from all population groups, who have many different kinds of disabilities and needs. It is very holistic, incorporating both mind and body. It is also very person-centred in that it involves getting to know people, understanding what their needs, strengths and interests are, and looking at how they interact in their natural environments. I studied the four-year degree at Southern Cross University on the Gold Coast. I also did six months of primary education in between, but decided to stick with OT.
I have been able to use my qualifications to get a few different jobs. My first job was working at Community Mental Health, although this was a Case Management role and did not utilise my OT-specific skills. I then worked as an OT in an Early Childhood Intervention Centre. This involved working with young children from zero to eight years with a variety of disabilities including physical, intellectual, sensory and/or developmental delays. My current role is working with Flourish Australia as an OT at the Dubbo and Bathurst Sub-Acute Mental Health Units, taking turns to cover each unit week-about.
“Occupational Therapists ask ‘What matters to you?’ not ‘What’s the matter with you?’”
-Ginny Stoffel (AOTA President)
One of the main components of OT is assessing a person’s day-to-day functioning and exploring different skills or strategies that a person could use for them to be as independent as possible. As an example, if a person has experienced a stroke that has resulted in weakness down one side of the body, an OT could explore different ways to do day-to-day tasks such as cooking or hanging out washing that requires the use of both arms. Another main component of OT is determining a person’s sensory preferences.
In my current role, I invite people who access the service to explore my sensory kit which includes things like blankets, heat packs, scented candles, slimy goo, and other items that stimulate certain senses. This gives people the opportunity to identify what items make them feel calm or alert, which can help in regulating their emotions, and changing their mood in a helpful way.
OTs are trained to be strengths-based. We look at what the person CAN do. We do this by getting to know the person through conversation as well as observation. For example, we might observe a person doing an everyday task, such as cooking, and use this to not only identify any areas of improvement, but also hone in on what they are good at. Sometimes we have to help people find alternative ways of doing things. Sometimes we even need to find alternatives to those alternatives! There is a lot of scope for creativity in OT, which involves a lot thinking outside the box! In the end, of course, all we do is recommend things to people for them to take on board if they wish.
OT in Mental Health
In the Sub-Acute Units, we have an OT group that look at the four domains of daily activities: Self-Care, Rest, Leisure and Productivity. This group looks at how to find a balance between these domains, as this is very important in maintaining our physical and mental health. The group also highlights that, the activities we choose to do, need to be meaningful and important to us.
One of the issues that we see quite frequently for people accessing the service is poor coping skills. This might be in the form of substance abuse, self-harming, or other impulsive behaviours. Sometimes this is due to people not fully understanding their emotions, including why they feel the way they do, and how to appropriately express these emotions. It is important to find more appropriate ways of coping with stress and strong emotions. Sleep is also often a big problem for people experiencing a decline in their mental health. So many people have poor quality sleep so we also run groups on sleep hygiene, and hold evening mediation or relaxation sessions before bed.
I really love the work that I do, and enjoy seeing the difference that OT can make in improving a person’s quality of life.
Thanks also to Sheree Masling and Jenny Craig