What to Expect From a Mental Health Occupational Therapist

People smiling in a group therapy session

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Many people associate occupational therapy with pediatric services or physical rehabilitation. They are surprised to find occupational therapists also working in mental health settings.

If you or a loved one is seeing a mental health OT, learning about their role can help you advocate for the best care.

The History of Occupational Therapy in Mental Health

Occupational therapy has its origins in mental health. At one point, the majority of OTs worked in mental health settings. In the past decade, the number of OTs in the United States working in mental health has dropped. (You were right to associate OT with physical rehab and pediatrics.) 

However, new shifts in mental health care delivery may be opening the door for more OTs to re-enter this field.

What OTs Bring to the Mental Health Treatment Team

The training of an OT requires holistic approaches well suited for work in mental health settings. In addition to their training in physical well-being, occupational therapists are also trained in:

  • Cognitive assessment
  • Sensory strategies
  • Therapeutic alliances
  • Group process
  • Participation in activities of daily learning (ADLs)
  • Socio-emotional skills

As in other OT settings, the ultimate focus of occupational therapy is to assist clients in participating in daily activities as independently as possible.

Interventions Mental Health OTs Provide

Here is a snapshot of common mental health OT interventions:

Lead Groups

Occupational therapists are trained in the group process. Examples of groups led by an occupational therapist may include:

  • Life skills
  • Job readiness
  • Therapeutic cooking
  • Money management
  • Wellness recovery action plans (WRAP)
  • Therapeutic leisure
  • Nutrition
  • Sensory groups
  • Independent living

Provide Calming and Grounding Strategies

Occupational therapists believe that participation in daily activities (aka occupations) is vital to mental health and well-being. Your occupational therapist may help you utilize familiar activities as coping mechanisms, such as listening to music, playing cards, writing, doodling, cooking, or cleaning.

OTs are also fluent in sensory strategies. A person’s sensory system helps process information from the environment. For individuals with mental health conditions, their ability to process this information may be compromised, which can lead to feeling agitated and unsafe.

Sensory strategies activate an individual’s basic processing systems (vestibular, proprioceptive, deep pressure touch) to aid in processing information, helping individuals feel grounded and calm. Sensory strategies may prove effective for people who may not be at a state to benefit from talk therapies.

Sensory Rooms

OTs are part of a larger movement to create sensory rooms on mental health units. Sensory rooms are places where individuals can go to feel safe. The rooms often have tools to help de-escalate and relax. The use of this simple concept has helped drop seclusion and restraint levels dramatically on some units.

Assess Discharge Preparedness

OTs have a battery of assessments that they can use to assess discharge preparedness in a standardized way. This information can help your treatment team understand what amount of care you will need at discharge and gauge your treatment progress.

Address Physical Wellbeing

One important qualification that sets occupational therapists apart from other qualified mental health professionals is their background in physical rehabilitation. Mental health issues are often overlaid with issues of physical health. In a mental health setting, you may find an OT addressing general strengthening, adjusting wheelchairs, recommending adaptive equipment, or any other task that is within the scope of occupational therapy.

Advocate for Safe Independence

Ultimately, your OT will seek to assist you in participating in daily activities. If your mental health condition is compromising your ability to participate in daily activities, speak to your occupational therapist about your concerns. If they do not have the tools to assure that your needs are being met, they can serve as an advocate and assist in getting you the necessary help.

Specializations in Mental Health

Many OTs are competent in trauma-informed care and the recovery model, either through their schooling, workplace training or independent study. Some OTs go on to earn the certification of Certified Psychiatric Rehabilitation Practitioner (CPRP).

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Occupational Therapy Association. Occupational therapy's role in community mental health.

  2. American Occupational Therapy Association. About occupational therapy.

Additional Reading

By Sarah Lyon, OTR/L
Sarah Lyon, OTR/L, is a board-certified occupational therapist and founder of OT Potential.