Occupational Therapy and the Recovery Model

As the recovery model becomes the leading framework for mental healthcare, mental health disciplines have had to align their practice with its tenets.

This has been no problem for occupational therapy.

A daytime group therapy session
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The two models of care are closely related. In fact, the increasing popularity of the recovery model may open new doors for OTs involvement in mental healthcare.

This article gives a brief overview of that alignment. At the end, I share my experience as an OT working in an institution that switched to a recovery model of care.

The Overlap Between OT and the Recovery Model

The overlap comes down to the fact that both occupational therapy and the recovery model have a holistic view of our clients, health, and what recovery looks like. Both believe that you must consider all dimensions of a person’s life in treatment and that treatment should be directed by what is meaningful to the patients.

Tina Champagne said it best in an article for the American Occupational Therapy Association:

"(The) fundamental recovery principles are in full alignment with the philosophy of occupational therapy practice, which is inherently client-centered, collaborative, and focused on supporting resiliency, full participation, health promotion, and a wellness lifestyle."

Given the Proper Supports

One of the basic tenants of the recovery model is that given the proper supports patients can recover from their illness to lead full, satisfying lives. Occupational therapy is often one of these key supports.

Our training is specifically geared toward helping people participate in meaningful activities. When I worked at a psychiatric facility, the majority of my groups were under the heading of “life skills.”

A new learning module put out by the American Psychological Association gives a wonderful description on Page 6 of why people with a mental health condition may particularly benefit from a life skills group.

The summary is this: Many people with mental health conditions experience their first symptoms from age 16-26. Before their first episode, they may already be in serious distress as their symptoms begin to emerge. This is at a vital time of development when many peers are finishing formal education, beginning their vocational career, and refining relational skills. These gaps in living skills can be overcome when symptoms have been abated, but they should be specifically addressed.

Other Dimensions of Holistic Care

In addition to specific training in life skills, occupational therapists bring a unique background to a mental health team. They have training in physical wellness and physical disability—which is a vital part of treatment as people with mental health conditions also have physical health conditions that can go unnoticed.

Occupational therapists are also trained at assessing which specific skills will be needed to thrive in the discharge setting and whether the client can perform them.

A Personal Note about Occupational Therapy and Recovery

I worked at a state psychiatric hospital when the administration began to make the switch to the recovery model. My clientele was adult males, many of whom had been hospitalized for many months.

I’d been leading life skills groups with a pretty set curriculum. I felt like an educator and while I tried my best to keep guys engaged, I struggled. When the administration introduced me to the recovery model and asked me to formulate the groups to reflect the basic principles, my role and experience completely shifted.

Instead of being a lecturer, I became a facilitator. Our patients became more engaged. Our group content became much more specific and much more helpful because it was directed by the guys and their specific questions. Where exactly would they grocery shop? What would they buy? How would they pay for it?

There were still many aspects of the programming that needed to be reconsidered and improved, but overall the change in thinking that came with the recovery model seemed necessary and a step in the right direction. 

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  1. American Occupational Therapy Association. Occupational therapy's role with mental health recovery.

  2. American Psychological Association. Recovery to practice initiative curriculum: reframing psychology for the emerging health care environment. Updated August 2014.