Being an Occupational Therapy Practitioner With Mental Illness and Physical Disability

Commonly asked Question:
Any OTs out there with a mental or physical disability?

Introduction

Many people have asked on the Internet if there are any occupational therapy practitioners (OTP) who have a mental illness and/or physical disability. I would estimate that there are probably more OTPs with mental illnesses than with physical disabilities. This is probably because occupational therapy can be quite a physical profession and those with physical disabilities may not physically be able to carry out the work demands, e.g., lifting and patient transfers. That’s not to say that having a mental illness would make it difficult to go to work, it could be.

One Student’s Experience

I remember reading one story about an OT student who had a physical disability and felt like they were not supported by the faculty while they were figuring out how to control their physical symptoms. I empathize with this student as this can be very discouraging.

My OT School Experience

In the middle of my own MSOT program, a sudden sharp abdominal pain came on one night that did not go away. I ended up in the ER and feeling anxious about (1) potentially having appendicitis and needing surgery and (2) whether I would be supported in OT school or if I would have to take a break or even get dropped from the program. You know how our mind’s thoughts can go to those cognitive distortions and false situations. I ended up being diagnosed with another chronic condition that I continue to manage to this day.

Your health and wellness comes first.

Classmate’s Experience

Several of my peers experienced similar medical situations, with one classmate being gone for a month or more (I don’t remember exactly). To make you all feel better, we all completed the program and did not have fall behind a semester or have to drop the program. I attribute this to our supportive OT program and accommodating staff. I realize that not all students may be so fortunate to be and feel this supported.

My Mental Illness

Then there’s mental illness. This is hard to tell because it is ‘invisible’. Personally, I struggled with anxiety combined with symptoms of my undiagnosed OCPD (obsessive compulsive personality disorder) including things such as the need for perfection, only being able to focus on one task at once, and maintaining order in my environment. You should have seen my OT folder on my computer, it was hyper-organized. While many may see this as a negative, it is just part of who I am and what I can provide to my clients as an occupational therapy practitioner.

You would think that working as an OTP with mental illness can be difficult in some aspects, e.g., my anxiety around certain situations. While I did experience this at times, overall, I was pretty ‘calm and cool’. Many of my colleagues say I was very coolheaded, never got upset or was appropriate, etc. My outlet for stress was going to the gym before the pandemic, listening to music, and getting lost in a project, e.g., starting up my blog at the time.

My Physical Barriers

Physically, although I went to gym, I was definitely not the model ‘fit’ OT. I definitely was not able to do that many squats or go that long with cardio. I did not eat very well, have the best work-life balance, or really go to the gym regularly either. I neglected to do cardio and wasn’t 100% on top of my health management as an occupation. Oftentimes, my right knee would hurt after patient transfers or a long day of walking after floating to acute care. To this day, it is idiopathic despite MRI and some PT. I rely on daily stretching to keep my knee in check and wearing good shoes. Lately, I have been slacking on some of my lower extremity exercises that my PT recommended me.

Then there’s my lower back. I didn’t have the best core strength and the best body mechanics when I worked as an EMT. I think it really took a toll on my lower back and caused a lot of wear and tear on it. After some difficult transfers, I really felt soreness in my low back. The toughest days were ones that involved consecutive shifts with difficult patient transfers. I imagine there a lot of occupational and physical therapists out there who ‘hurt’ after some days. I’ve seen the memes so it must be true? Currently, I am recovering from two slipped discs after a non-work-related ‘freak’ accident and also have DJD.

I have chronic low back pain every day.

Despite all this, I love my job. I love what I do and I love working with my clients. Being an OT in a hospital setting really humbles me and makes me appreciate life overall. Seeing my clients experience a loss of physical function and develop mental illnesses such as depression really reminds me of how fortunate my life is. I learn a lot of lessons from working as an occupational therapist. I don’t take what I have for granted. I am more careful and less reckless. I value old age and older adults. It makes me think about valuing my time now and preparing for old age and planning as much I can for the worse, e.g, purchasing life insurance for all my family members, estate planning, DPOA, medical directives, etc. See this post for more.

You CAN do it too

While every person and type of condition and severity is different, there is a type of job out there for you as an OTP. If you have a physical disability, many clients would love to learn from you and how you manage your independence. Some settings are easier on your body such as mental health, hand therapy, pediatrics, consulting, research, and education. The main thing is communication. Communicate with your doctor, with your family members, with your faculty and clinical instructors, with your manager and HR. You may be entitled to accommodation during OT school or in the workplace.

OTPs should not have to hide or be ashamed of their disability. It is kind of ironic isn’t it? we work with clients who are just that.

Last is to practice what you preach: to have a good work-life balance, eat well, exercise, take mental days off, take care of you, get help, see a doctor, talk to a psychiatrist, get on some medication, modify your work schedule, get support, or whatever it may be. (I can definitely use some work in this department.)

Take care, stay healthy and well. Thanks for choosing OT!