The Role of OT in Pediatric Mental Health

By AASLMay 29, 2017

“There is no health without mental health.” World Health Organization [WHO], 2001

Across the country, 1 in 5 children have, or will develop, a serious mental illness (NAMI, 2017). During the month of May, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is working to continue to raise awareness for mental health in efforts to overcome stigmas and provide support to those in need. Mental health is an area of practice that I hold especially close to my heart, since the practice of occupational therapy (OT) originated in the field of mental health, as did my OT career.

In the 1920’s, Eleanor Clark Slagle, a social worker, and Adolf Meyer, a psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, headed the first occupational therapy department. They developed “Habit Training,” (Cole & Tufano, 2008) and found that engagement in structured occupations helped individuals promote and restore mental health. By analyzing and adapting activities, individuals with mental illnesses were able to establish and/or reestablish the crucial connections between engagement in daily roles and mental wellness.

Flash forward ninety years, to my first day as an OT student at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I remember feeling excited, intimidated, and inspired as I walked into the “Meyer Building” to meet my supervisor (a brilliant OT who would teach me everything she knew). I had read all my textbooks and diligently prepared myself to rattle off all the signs, symptoms, and treatments for the varying diagnoses of clients I would soon be working with; diagnoses that for decades have accompanied fear, intolerance, and shame. I came to find that no lecture or book would provide me the comprehensive understanding of mental illness that I would soon gain from first-hand experience working with this population. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate by gender, age, race, or socioeconomic status. People with mental illnesses are just that, people, like you and me; our neighbors, family members, coworkers, and friends; people who need support to get back to living their lives with the tools to self-identify signs, manage symptoms, and prevent relapse.

After completing my clinical training, I continued on at Johns Hopkins, where I had the amazing privilege of working with children and young adults who were struggling with acute and persistent mental illnesses on both inpatient and outpatient units.  Every morning I had the incredible opportunity to round with some of the best and brightest psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other occupational therapists, all dedicated to promoting wellness for each child on our service through collaborative and comprehensive care. I was able to learn so much not only from my own discipline, but also about pharmacology, behavior modification, family training, and so much more.

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