Occupational therapy is a type of therapy that helps people experiencing a physical or mental illness recover through engaging in meaningful activities that are a part of everyday life. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, “occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants help people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations).”

The purpose of occupational therapy is to enable an individual to participate in meaningful occupations of their choosing to a level that is satisfying to them. ‘Occupation’ refers to any activity that has meaning to an individual; activities that inspire individuals to reach physical and emotional health and well-being. From the moment we wake up to the time one falls asleep, we are engaging in occupations; this includes the way we experience our world through our senses. How we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste can all influence the way we function in the world and help or hinder our ability to participate in life. Occupational therapy helps individuals to create meaningful lives.

Occupational therapists help individuals to engage in everyday life, from work and recreation to daily living activities. Occupational therapy can help people recovering from mental and physical illnesses learn or relearn how to do basic daily tasks as well as handle more complex situations. An occupational therapist may help a person learn how to do many things that impact their life, like being more confident at work, having better concentration in school, or developing stronger relationships. Anyone at any age can benefit from occupational therapy.

Occupations identified by the American Occupational Therapy Association include:

  • Activities of daily living, such as showering, getting dressed, and eating
  • Instrumental activities of daily living, such as care for others or pets, managing finances, driving, and preparing meals
  • Rest and sleep
  • Education
  • Work
  • Play
  • Leisure
  • Social participation

Occupational therapists can be found in a variety of treatment settings, including inpatient hospitals, day hospitals and day programs, residential treatment centers, special education schools, outpatient treatment centers, and more.

The History of Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy was originally described as a “work cure theory.” Individuals were encouraged to participate in everyday activities, such as arts and crafts, sports, and more. It was said by Dr. Herbert Hall that “idleness too long continued is as deadening to the spirit as it is disabling to the body… it too often means degeneration, and in the end, increased suffering.”

The practice of occupational therapy was formally developed in 1921 by Sheppard Pratt psychiatrist Dr. William Rush Dunton. Dr. Dunton was inspired by the use of purposeful activities and events to restore individuals’ levels of functioning; he was also a proponent of the idea that “occupation is a basic human need, and that occupation is therapeutic.” At Sheppard Pratt, these meaningful, therapeutic activities took place within the halls, on the grounds, and in the Casino building. Patients engaged in activities that were meaningful to then, such as gardening and farming, art, dancing, music, sports, picnics, and more.