Mental Health

How Occupational Therapy Empowers Those with Mental Illness


Mental illness is one of the leading causes of disability and can significantly impact an individual’s ability to engage in daily life activities. April is OT Month, and occupational therapy is an important but lesser-known component of mental health treatment. Occupational therapists help people develop life skills to live more independently after illness or injury.

What is occupational therapy?

Injury, illness, and big life changes can make it hard to do the things that bring us meaning and purpose in life. Occupational therapists help patients recover from lifechanging illness and disability by restoring their ability to perform occupations, or the everyday activities that we do to occupy time (like cooking, driving, organizing, or working). By focusing on developing these skills, OTs enable people to function more independently and adapt to their changing life circumstances.

Occupational therapy at Sheppard Pratt

At Sheppard Pratt – the birthplace of OT – occupational therapy is an integral part of providing compassionate and comprehensive care to the people we serve. From inpatient and residential units to community services, you’ll find occupational therapists in many different units, helping people navigate the barriers that their mental illnesses may present. They complete functional assessments of a person’s needs and provide interventions to help them understand how mental illness is impacting their participation in meaningful activities. By rebuilding certain skills through occupational therapy, the person is better able to live life to the fullest potential.

Occupational therapy can help anyone no matter their age or illness. At The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt, for example, an occupational therapist may assist an older person who is struggling with mental illness while adjusting to life after retirement. Leaving the workforce can be a big and unexpected change, because work is often the primary source of purpose in someone’s life. An occupational therapist can help that person find other ways to build meaning and connection in their day-to-day lives, like volunteering. If a person is struggling to thrive in college due to depression and anxiety, an occupational therapist can help them determine the ways they can succeed academically and create social connections while taking care of their mental health.

Occupational therapy uses a strength-based approach to aid in a person’s recovery, which means identifying and building upon someone’s abilities rather than their limitations and disabilities.

The history of occupational therapy 

Occupational therapy was established at Sheppard Pratt in 1921 by Dr. William Rush Dunton Jr., a psychiatrist and early supporter of moral treatment of people with mental illness. 

Inspired by the use of purposeful activities and events to restore individuals’ levels of functioning, Dr. Dunton was a proponent of the idea that “occupation is a basic human need, and that occupation is therapeutic.” Individuals at Sheppard Pratt were encouraged to participate in everyday activities, such as arts and crafts, sports, and more as part of mental health treatment. He went on to jointly establish the American Occupational Therapy Association


When mental illness or injury gets in the way of performing everyday tasks, occupational therapists are there to help. In assessing, identifying, and addressing the barriers to a healthy and independent life, occupational therapists change lives every day.

  • Melissa Flanders, MS, OTR/L

    Occupational Therapist, The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt
  • Vaune Kopeck, OTR/L

    Occupational Therapist