Mental Health in Children and Youth – How can Occupational Therapists help?

Written by Ms Jennifer Nguy, Occupational Therapist, Change for Life

Dr Angraj Khillan, Consultant Paediatrician Western Specialist Care Centre

Occupational therapists aim to enhance emotional-well-being, mental health, and social competence through increasing participation in meaningful roles and activities. Roles may include: being a student, friend or family member. Activities may include: doing school-work, completing homework, completing daily self-care tasks, engaging in sports or hobbies and making new friends. Occupational therapists may work closely with parents, carers, educators and school staff, psychologists, paediatricians, GPs, psychiatrists and local communities to develop a greater understanding of the factors that are impacting on the child’s performance in everyday tasks.

When a child experiences increased stress in their life, such as from:

  • changing schools;
  • moving into a new suburb or country;
  • losing old friends and having to make new friends;
  • adjusting to a new culture and language;
  • difficulties within the family home;
  • being bullied at school;
  • difficulties maintaining friendships at school;

the child may feel overwhelmed and struggle to cope with everyday demands. This may look like: a failure to complete school work or homework, difficulty following instructions, fighting or arguing with other students and/or siblings, inability to share own belongings or difficulty concentrating and paying attention at school.

Occupational therapists can help with identifying the early signs of mental illness and offer services to children who are diagnosed with depression, anxiety, autism, ADHD, and other disorders that may affect a child’s mental health. Making and maintaining healthy friendships with other children contributes to a positive emotional wellbeing and mental health. Social competence involves understanding and following social cues, making and keeping friends, coping with anger, sadness and frustration, solving problems and following school rules.

Occupational therapists use a strengths-based and client-centred approach to evaluate social competence and identify whether a child’s motor, social-emotional, cognitive skills, ability to interpret and process sensory information and the impact of how the environment influences the child’s functioning in activities.

Occupational therapists can help the child and their family to:

  • include sensory and movement breaks into the day to enhance attention and learning;
  • provide support to teachers and school staff (by breaking tasks into smaller steps, changing the environment to improve attention and by reducing the sensory stimuli in the classroom);
  • provide social skills training and social stories to support the child in developing social competence;
  • promote wellbeing and mental health in all the environments where children are playing, learning and growing.

Occupational therapists aim to promote successful participation in the activities that represent a healthy childhood and set up the child for success throughout their development and life.

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