Understanding the work of an Occupational Therapist

We have all heard of the term the occupational therapist, but few people who have never actually visited one really understand what it is and what the therapists actually do. Wikipedia describes it as “the use of assessment and intervention to develop, recover, or maintain the meaningful activities, or occupations, of individuals, groups or communities.” Occupational therapists often work with children, people with mental health issues, injuries, disabilities and impairments. While we might think of it as something new, the truth is that occupation therapy has very long roots back in history. A hundred or so years before Christ, a Greek physician treated patients with mental illness with massage, music, exercise and therapeutic baths. The Romans did something similar, though by medieval times the practice was essentially finished.  Until the 18th Century, mental patients often received no treatment, but were simply placed in chains or other restraints. The use of work and leisure activities at this time in treatment, marks the beginning of the road to where we are today.

Arts and Crafts

Occupational therapy owes quite a lot to the Arts and Crafts movement which took place between 1860 and 1910, where they were used as a way of helping people to learn through doing something, and to help pass the time of day during lengthy stays for people in hospital. The “mother” of occupational therapy around this time, Eleanor Clarke Slagle, believed that habit training should be a primary occupational therapy model of treatment. While habit training focused on providing structure to a patient’s life and to create a balance between work and leisure, its basic tenets are still clearly apparent in modern treatments across a range of practices.

The Modern Day Occupational Therapist

In today’s parlance, occupation is taken to mean any form of meaningful activity in which one engages in, with which to “occupy” their time. Such activities can vary widely and be goal directed, task oriented, be focused on an individual or a community or culture. An occupational therapist in Dubai will work with people of all ages, though children and the elderly are regular clients. For the child it is about providing them with a learning path, to develop and fine tune motor skills, use of language, social interaction and obtaining the milestone achievements of their peers. For the elderly, it can be more focused on improving their lives and abilities, especially if after an accident or a stroke. Here it can be as much about making changes to the physical layout of their home and the use of adaptive equipment, as it is with the patient themselves. For those who have been injured, occupational therapy assesses the functional requirements of various jobs, with a view to being able to reintegrate someone to the work place, both for their financial well-being and their personal self-esteem, while also assessing the work place itself, with a view to making it a safer environment.

Mental health is an area that relies heavily on occupation therapy to try to develop strategies to help people overcome their mental health problems, improve their confidence and to enhance their independence in everyday activities, considered normal by everyone else. The work is wide and varied, but as a community, very essential.