Supporting Mental Wellness Together: The Role of Occupational Therapists in Fostering Community Connection
Written by Marli Groenveld Occupational therapists (OTs) provide a unique perspective within the field of…
What drew you to a career in occupational therapy?
I was a huge science nerd in high school and was so fascinated in how the workings of the human body, mix this with a childhood heavy in high level sport and I was naturally led towards a career somewhere in the sport/ health sciences. It was actually my mum who suggested OT as she thought it would give me a wide range of avenues to go down whilst staying in the health realm and I am so happy she did otherwise I probably wouldn’t have ended up in OT- honestly I had no idea what an OT actually was or did (which is not uncommon as I’ve very quickly learnt).
As a fresh OT I always thought I would work with elite athletes or in the sports space, but with my own life experiences and experiences with my clients I’ve found myself more and more interested in the relationship between mental and physical health which is how I ended up at Lifeworks OT working with clients with chronic conditions.
What do you find the most rewarding part of your job?
I think the most rewarding part of my job is helping my clients to take control of their own health, rehab and life and taking this to create a life they are truly happy with. Whether it’s because of their pain, fatigue, messages from different professionals (health, medical, insurance) or the million and one other barriers people with chronic conditions experience, chronic conditions have a nasty way of making people feel like they have no control over their life or what they do with it.
As an OT I try to see the person behind the injury or condition which can be so powerful in helping people come back to what’s important to them, that’s when we can really start to figure out what we need to do to get there. I love being able to spend every day figuring out what makes people ‘tick’, what they care about and helping them overcome all of the barriers (physical, emotional, environmental) to achieving their goals and engage in all of their meaningful occupations.
What does your typical day look like?
I arrive at the office at 8 to set up for the day, my first client is at 8:30am. First, Coffee! Then I spend the morning catching up on emails and finalising my therapy plans for the day. I mostly start my day with clinic based appointments at our Mt Lawley clinic.
My first client of the day is a 44 year old man with chronic nociplastic neck, back and shoulder pain as a result of a motor vehicle accident, as well as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) symptoms related to his pain and accident. We have been working on developing anxiety and pain management skills and finding ways to incorporate movement therapy in a safe way, he has previously had some bad experiences with exercise based rehabilitation so is quite hesitant.
We walk to a local park and engage him in mindfulness, noticing the sun, birds, and conversation; which helps with pulling attention away from pain and focusing on valued activities. He has engaged and progressed well with mindfulness based functional movement, we then spend some time ‘’playing’’ on the monkey bars. I find these types of activities a great way to reintroduce movement to people with chronic pain in a much less distressing way. We also do some animal walks which gets him moving but has also been very helpful in assisting him to manage anxiety attacks.
Back to the clinic for a client with Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) in her left foot. We have progressed this lady through a graded motor imagery program. She has managed to reduce the frequency and severity of her pain flares- she is also now able to walk up and down stairs! I have been working with this lady for a while and we will continue monitoring her ability to manage her pain and minimise flares through the use of visualisation and the GMI recognise app. She finally feels ready to start engaging with exercise therapy, a goal of hers from the beginning so we discuss appropriate options for her.
I refer her to a local exercise physiologist we work with and who has a good understanding of CRPS, which is important to appropriately load and gradually increase her exercise tolerance. I am so happy we have a good network of health professionals we can work with to get the best outcomes for our clients.
Quick break between clients. I make a phone call to a Physiotherapist for a client who is about to have a spinal cord stimulator (SCS) implant to discuss our ongoing rehabilitation plan and how as a team we can help her get the best outcome for her SCS.
My next client is coming in for Scrambler Therapy, a non-invasive neuromodulation device for chronic neuropathic pain. Scrambler Therapy is one of the tools we use within the Pain Care OT team to assist people to engage in active rehabilitation. We spend the session going through pain education, an important step in managing chronic pain conditions. Helping people understand their condition is a great first step in helping them understand the modifiable contributing factors and giving them a sense of control over their pain.
Last clinic visit for the day is for a lady with chronic low back pain and PTSD. We are working on autonomic regulation and helping her understand the link between PTSD, chronic pain and her range of symptoms through polyvagal theory based therapy. Today I am introducing Heartmath tools; which is a device which helps us monitor and train autonomic regulation through measuring HRV; and ground techniques. We work on box breathing and deep pressure grounding to help her manage distress associated with pain and anxiety.
Every Monday lunch time the Pain Care OT team meets to collaborate on how to best improve our service. Today we are looking at a new virtual reality system we recently got. One of our OTs has been working with RecoveryVR to optimise their pain management program and we finally get to test it out!
Last appointment for the day is a home visit with an NDIS participant who has CRPS. I haven’t seen him for a while as we have been waiting on his new plan to be approved so today’s session we spent time catching up on how he has been going and setting new goals. He has recently had his grandson come and stay with him but due to his pain and fatigue he is very limited in his ability to play with him. Our new goal is to be able to take his grandson to the park independently. I am also using HRV measuring with this client to assist him to downregulate when pain flares, we practice a visualisation of him at the park with his grandson combined with a breathing exercise to reduce his autonomic distress. His heartmath measurements show an improved HRV and he reported feeling much better- a great start in being able to increase his pain management skills and physical capacity!
I finish the day working from home on a presentation I am doing on pain care OT and Scrambler Therapy. A part of my role I really enjoy is educating other professionals on the role of OT in pain care and best evidence based practice for managing and treating chronic pain conditions.
Done for the day! I try to do something after work everyday to switch my brain off. Today I’m taking Peanut for a walk along the coast. I need to make sure I look after myself and my own physical and mental health so I can be the best I can be for my clients.