Thirty-five years ago when I was a new graduate I remember telling a friend that my training in Occupational Therapy was an excellent training for life. Years later as we stand at a crossroads in health, education and global socio-economic changes, I realise how true those words were. The longer my life goes on, the more I appreciate the skills I learnt, and how the qualification set me in good stead to navigate the future in all its uncertainty. It was not a binary training, seeing things in black and white, but rather a systemic, holistic qualification rooted in kindness and care – something we need more than ever nowadays.
Occupational Therapy (OT) is a profession that looks at what human beings need to lead independent and meaningful lives. It is a psychological, physical and spiritual training that teaches about the human condition. The training includes psychology, child development, human behaviour, physiology, medicine and surgery as the foundation for viewing cultural, social and cognitive occupations – what we do with our daily lives. It covered what we think and why we think it, how we move and feel and how all this is connected, how we become who we are through what we do, and how we respond to what happens to us.
Often misunderstood and undervalued – and frequently poorly articulated – as well as falling victim to historically being a profession run by women, OT has lacked status. But looking at it from our current position in history, it has valuable lessons for the world and some models that can help us navigate the new normal. Post-Covid, we need to build compassion and reestablish community, to ascertain what really matters. We need to create jobs that are sustainable and cannot be done more cheaply by robots and artificial intelligence. As we contemplate a post-Covid era with cultural rifts, mental and physical health fallout and technology taking traditional jobs, we need to rediscover human occupation in all its integrity. We also need to look at people as being multifaceted and interlinked. This is not the time for linear thought, politically, economically, culturally or socially and emotionally.
As an OT, I look at how people function in these domains:
o Belief systems
Viewing humanity as so multifaceted and paying heed to these intertwined components helps us build more humane futures – not just for people who need therapy but for societies as a whole.
In the 1980s an OT theorist called Gary Kielhofner helped articulate human occupation and stated:
“Occupational therapy embodies an appreciation of Man’s greatest capacity, the ability to explore and master his world. Occupational therapy clinics tap the deepest and most powerful adaptive response – the ability to find challenge and meaning in one’s daily undertaking, one’s occupation. The model … is an attempt to describe and explain that central aspect of human existence and adaptation.”
Kielhofner looked at humankind’s occupation as being a result of motivations, patterns, performance capacity factors and environmental influences, and he considered how highly adaptive we are if given the chance to engage in meaningful occupation.
We need to view our global rebuild through these holistic lenses. Traditionally, much of our education system and political systems have looked at only a few of domains. Education focuses on cognitive and physical domains, often wreaking havoc on the social and emotional domain with its focus on academic results, awards and accolades that creates a certain percentage of failures. Politics is often about economic growth or social and cultural power, often to the detriment of the environment and emotional wellbeing. The rise of two-tier societies, inequality and nationalism illustrates this. Too singular an approach to the future jeopardises our wonderful, complex humanity. OT, in its ideal holism, looks systemically, and focuses on the unique needs of the individual, the group and society.
As an OT, I learnt about social skills, how to build positive relationships and identify falsehood, what was mad, what was bad and what was just sad. I learnt the basics of how body and mind work. I learnt empathy, vulnerability and how to problem-solve against the odds. And I learnt a wonderful process called ‘activity analysis’ that helped me break everyday activities into component parts to see where problems lay so I could solve them. It also taught me the importance of doing activities with my hands, how that calms me, teaches me and wires complex parts of my brain for wellbeing.
As humanity looks at the future and seeks to reevaluate where we are, we should be heeding the wisdom of this profession. OTs are quiet, gentle voices of nurture, humanity and functionality. As we seek to rehabilitate the world, we should turn to the experts in human rehabilitation and to Occupational Therapists.
To find out more about this incredible profession visit https://www.wfot.org
To find out how we have applied OT to the occupation of play visit https://www.development
This blog was written by Caroline Essame, Founder and CEO of CreateCATT and a committed Occupational Therapist for over 35 year having graduated from Oxford Brookes University in 1985.