Occupational therapy and trauma: what is it and how does it help?


October is Occupational Therapy Month in Canada, and it’s a time to recognize and celebrate the amazing work Occupational Therapists (OTs) do for so many people, including those who have suffered some form of trauma.

Kim Barthel is one such OT, but before we get into the work that Kim has done in this field, let’s talk about what occupational therapy is and how it helps so many.

The Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists (CAOT) describes this type of therapy as:

Occupational therapy is the art and science of enabling engagement in everyday living, through occupation; of enabling people to perform the occupations that foster health and well-being; and of enabling a just and inclusive society so that all people may participate to their potential in the daily occupations of life. 

OT is known for its holistic lens; it looks at any individual or situation appreciating the influences of the mind, body, emotional and spiritual aspects of being. It allows for and encourages cooperation between different therapeutic approaches, helping to integrate treatments into practical strategies supporting optimum participation in daily living. A lot of the work OTs do is related to mental health, therefore understanding the influences of trauma is a critical aspect of an occupational therapist’s practice.

Traumatic and distressing events such as crime, natural disasters, accidents, war, abuse (the list is endless) can cause PTSD. Symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks, nervousness, insomnia and a long list more, can interfere with normal life for long periods of time. Even without PTSD, there is a long list of mental health-related conditions that OTs support.

Occupational therapists work with individuals to help identify strengths, values, interests, resources and challenges in order to implement plans that address family commitments, employment and leisure activities. Occupational therapy looks beyond the physical and mental disability and works with their clients and their family to help them engage in the meaningful activities of their lives. — CAOT

Some specific ways OTs can help victims of trauma include:

  • Identifying purposeful activities that enhance client’s participation in their family, personal and work life.
  • Helping clients better understand the impact of their mental health problems.
  • Helping clients plan, initiate and track short and long-term goals to enable participation in their activities.
  • Performing assessments to help clients understand their specific challenges, such as concentration, attention, anxiety, etc.
  • Helping clients learn practical and non-pharmaceutical ways of coping with their symptoms.
  • Using hands-on approaches with clients in both their home or workplace and meeting with the client’s family and employers to facilitate the engagement as well.

Kim Barthel knew she wanted to be an OT since she was nine years old. She began her professional career back in the early 80’s, before Theo won the Stanley Cup with Calgary, and long before they worked together in writing ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’. To give you a brief look at Kim’s career and experience in OT:

Kim began her career as a pediatric occupational therapist serving children and adolescents with a broad spectrum of neurological and developmental disabilities. She is an advanced Neuro-Developmental Treatment OT Instructor with the NDTA, teaching the facilitation of movement skills for people who experience challenges moving their bodies. She is also a teacher of  Sensory Processing Intervention and an experienced teacher of Attachment Theory. In 2016 Kim lead the creation of the SYNCroSI Centre in China, which stands as a centre of excellence for the integration of all these modalities. Today, as co-founder of ‘Relationship Matters’, Kim is a sought-after speaker and teaches workshops worldwide that are related to both OT and mental health.  

To read more about Kim’s OT work or to find out about her upcoming events in this field, check out her website. You can also take part in a conversation about trauma and healing with us on social media (Kim and Theo).

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