Written by: Jennifer Faherty, MOT, OTR/L
As we celebrate Mental Health Month in May, this article was written by Jen Faherty, our Assistant Clinic Director, as a way to both reflect on mental health needs and educate the public on this important topic.
When I entered the field of pediatric occupational therapy, I thought my job would be filled with swings, scooter boards, messy play trays, and balance beams. And while that ended up being relatively true, I did not fully appreciate how important mental health is to a child and their family’s functioning.
It was this realization that led me to further specialize and develop mental health skills into my approach for treatment. I have studied mental health extensively through journal articles, books, and professional mentoring. In 2019, I presented on the topic at the Virginia Occupational Therapy Association annual conference. I recently completed an advanced training and became a Certified Trauma Professional in November of 2020.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. According to the CDC, “one in six children have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder”. As of 2018, 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety, and 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 1.9 million) have diagnosed depression. Rates of diagnoses have consistently increased since 2003 and will likely continue to rise as this area is studied in the future.
It is important to note that mental health impacts everyone across the lifespan regardless of age, location, cultural background, or socio-economic status. The incidence of mental health challenges within yourself or loved ones is not a sign of mental weakness, poor parenting, or any other personal failing. They are biologically and neurologically derived and should be viewed the same way any other medical condition.
Many of us have likely experienced a significant impact on mental health caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A key tenant of mental health is the notion that safety and security are foundational. For the past year, our children have had their feelings of safety and belonging completely unsettled. Additionally, parents have been trying to navigate the challenges posed by the pandemic to include personal and financial security. Traumatic experiences and mental health issues have significant impacts on neurological functioning that affect one’s ability to complete daily tasks. While case trends and vaccination rates have been moving in a positive direction, allowing for full re-openings of schools and a hopeful return to a semblance of normalcy, the ramifications of the pandemic will remain with us for years to come. Now, more than ever, do we all need to feel safe, secure and understood.
The History of Occupational Therapy and Mental Health
Why, as an OT, do I address mental health in the first place?
Mental health prevails over everything one does. If one’s mental health is not functioning optimally (just like a hand or foot) it can have serious effects on one’s ability to engage in their desired and necessary occupations. Please check out last month’s post all about occupational therapy to learn more about the profession and occupations!
How can I tell if my child is experiencing mental health challenges?
Anxiety and depression are among the most common mental health challenges. Here is what to look for in your child:
|Excessive, unexplained worry||Loss of enjoyment/interest in activities/people|
|Difficulty managing the worry||Difficulty with cognitive tasks|
|Restlessness or unexplained nervous energy||Increase in irritability|
|Tiring easily||Resistance to participation in social activities; preference for being alone|
|Difficulty concentrating or loss of thoughts (“mind going blank”)||Changes in sleep pattern, activity levels, appetite|
|Muscle tension||Feelings of incompetence, hopelessness, and helplessness|
|Sleep disturbances||Expressions of worthlessness; unfounded guilt|
How can I help my child who may be struggling with their mental health?
If you recognize any of these above issues, you have already made the first step! Occupational therapists are uniquely positioned to assess how mental health challenges are impacting a child’s ability to engage in daily occupations at school, at home, and in the community. We also assess a variety of body functions to include sensory processing, executive functioning, functional vision, and motor skills and utilize a variety of treatment modalities to address each area of challenge. Occupational therapists know there is no cookie-cutter approach to treatment, and we consider many factors impacting a child’s personal situation and work with them and their family to best meet their needs.
We also collaborate with other mental health professionals and providers within the community and will help guide you to the correct professionals dependent on your child’s needs.
Jennifer is a graduate of James Madison University with her master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. Jen grew up in the Northern Virginia area and enjoys working with local families. She specializes in working with mental health conditions, sensory processing disorder, feeding issues, and executive functioning challenges. Jen is certified in the Handwriting Without Tears program and Therapeutic Listening through Vital Links. She is a certified Trauma Professional. She is a member of the Virginia Occupational Therapy Association (VOTA) and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Citations: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 22). Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health.