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Occupational Therapy in Recovery: More Than Just Return-to-Work

Occupational Therapy blog image

Written by Kathryn Decker, an occupational therapist who works at Bellwood Health Services.


When someone first hears the term occupational therapy, people tend to think about assisting patients in their return-to-work process after an illness or injury. While occupational therapists (OTs) sometimes help patients return to their jobs, this is only one small component of the profession. Occupational therapy enriches patients’ lives in a multitude of ways. 

What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy is a regulated health profession that helps individuals do the everyday things that are important and meaningful to them. Occupational therapists (OTs) perform comprehensive assessments to understand the physical, cognitive, and emotional difficulties that prevent a patient from easily performing daily activities.  

How Occupational Therapists Work

Occupational therapists (OTs) help patients achieve their goals by teaching them ways to improve their skills and abilities (remediation techniques) or by working with them to create alternative strategies or approaches to a task (compensatory techniques). OTs work with patients to analyze activities, break down tasks and goals into smaller parts, adjust the tasks to match patients’ abilities, and support patients as they practice and use their skills in realistic and meaningful scenarios.

OT’s Role in Recovery

In residential treatment programs, occupational therapists (OTs) help patients improve emotional regulation skills, increase awareness of unhealthy behaviour patterns, practice pacing and energy conservation strategies, set and achieve goals, and develop or reestablish participation in meaningful daily activities. OTs are also the primary providers of exposure therapy, which involves working with patients to create gradual exposure plans, consistently evaluating and monitoring plans, and actively working in the community with patients to achieve their goals. 

Patients in the Concurrent Acquired Brain Injury and Addiction Program work with an OT during their admission. 

At Bellwood, occupational therapists (OTs) are part of the Mood & Anxiety Program (MAP) team and also the Concurrent Trauma and Addiction Program (CTAP) team. They consult in the Core Addiction and Behavioral Addiction programs, and also work with patients who enter treatment with an acquired brain injury (ABI). 

OTs Assist in Learning New Coping Skills 

Occupational Therapists (OTs) meet with patients on a weekly basis to provide compensatory and remedial strategies that enable patients to fully engage in group-based programs. Compensatory strategies may include assistance with maintaining a new daily schedule, wayfinding inside the treatment facility, and help with understanding and processing information in group presentations. OTs provide guidance to patients and group counsellors regarding accommodations for learning, including taking “brain breaks” during and between group sessions to prevent cognitive fatigue, and reducing distractions as much as possible. 

Occupational therapists (OTs) help patients repeat and consolidate newly learned activities by providing opportunities for reflection on newly acquired coping skills and planning how to use them in daily life. OTs also educate patients about common acquired brain injury (ABI) symptoms—such as repetitive behaviours and impaired impulse control—and about how these symptoms affect long-term recovery from addiction and mental health disorders.

Applying Real World Coping Strategies

Occupational therapists’ (OTs) psychotherapeutic skills and extensive training in understanding behaviour fill an important gap in addiction and mental health treatment. OTs help patients take skills and techniques that they learn in therapy and adapt them to each patient’s unique circumstances. Through real world applications, OTs improve outcomes for patients by helping them practice and gain confidence in the skills, knowledge, and techniques that they learned in therapy. In this way, occupational therapy helps patients develop effective tools for achieving successful long-term recovery.  

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If you would like to learn more about the treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, enrol yourself in one of our programs, or refer someone else, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.

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