Occupational Therapy Celebrates 100 years!

February 14, 2017

It is an exciting time to be an occupational therapist. This year we are celebrating our 100th year as an organized profession. One hundred years is not that long in the span of time for a profession, but the changes and impact that we have made through that time to meet society’s evolving needs has been significant.

In January, occupational therapy was highlighted on a float in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California. The float created from all natural elements featured images of various facets of occupational therapy through the years and two symbols of our beginnings and the tenets of our profession. One end of the float is the Hull House, the home of the first program dedicated to teaching the occupational therapy profession, on the other was an arbor with 4 pillars representing work, play, rest, and sleep. Balance in these four areas is thought to signify successful balance in everyday life. Occupational therapy aims to work with clients to address deficits in these areas and help them achieve success.

Occupational therapy has a long history of focusing on mental health and wellness. Initially, occupational therapy grew out of the arts and leisure movement with the idea that engagement in occupations is both the means to achieving recovery and the end goal of recovery. Through the years, the American Occupational Therapy Association(AOTA) has embraced different branding taglines, in 2013 they introduced “ Living Life to its Fullest” to replace the previous “Skills for the Job of Living” to highlight our emphasis on enhancing the quality of life for all people that receive our services and not just on building up skills.

For a profession with its roots in mental and behavioral health, over time we have moved away from being recognized in these areas. According to the most recent AOTA workforce survey in 2015 only 2.4% of OTs and 1.4% of OTAs reported working in mental health settings compared to 5.2% and 5.4% in 2000, representing one of the smallest practice areas for the profession. Comparatively, 19.9% of OTs reported working in school systems. But what does that mean for a profession that prides itself on addressing the needs of the whole person? How did we move so far away from our roots in mental health and how can we get back?

One of the ways the profession is committed to focusing on building influence in mental health is through advocacy for recognition in current health care reform as mental health practitioners. On Dec. 13, 2016, the 21st Century Cures Act was passed which included occupational therapy on a list of mental health professionals and allows for improved access to funding for education of future OTs in mental and behavioral health settings. One of the organization’s goals is to have occupational therapy recognized as mental health providers in all 50 states. On February 1, I joined over a hundred occupational therapy students, practitioners and educators in Richmond, Virginia to advocate for the passage of two bills related to occupational therapy in the general assembly. One of which aims to gain recognition for practitioners as qualified mental health and behavioral health practitioners which would allow them to qualify for the same loan forgiveness programs and funding opportunities as other providers. Working at Grafton, I am proud to be a part of the resurgence of OT in mental and behavioral health and am looking forward to sharing the strides we are making with future OTs through our growing fieldwork education program. Look for more updates on OT throughout the year as we celebrate 100 years of “Living Life to its fullest”.