Taking a mental health unit this semester in my occupational therapy course, I get the sense that there’s an “us and them” way of thinking. We’re the student health practitioners and they’re the people with mental health issues. Especially when talking about someone who is in a psych ward, described as “very, very unwell” by my tutor. I suspect there’s the belief that one of them couldn’t possibly be an OT student among us. Because if you have a mental health issue and have been hospitalised for it, you’re definitely not functional enough to be studying something like OT.
There may be a number of factors contributing to this. A proportion of students have possibly never been exposed to mental illness or people with mental illness before. It may be how the unit is taught. The examples and case studies used have tended to be rather stereotypical. A 48 year old man who appeared “dishevelled,” “rambled incoherently,” and “held a fixed, staring grin which was punctuated by odd facial grimacing,” a 67 year old man who is institutionalised and “has never been employed,” and a 30 year old woman with BPD who’s “participating in vocational rehabilitation as part of her OT program” (I assume this means she was also unemployed). And of course, all the examples involving a patient who’s been hospitalised have a psychotic illness. Because clearly, there are no other mental health issues for which people end up as an inpatient. Obviously there are people with mental health issues who do present in this manner. But there are also people who don’t, and I don’t think that message has been successfully received by those taking this unit.
It’s incredibly frustrating for me. I want an end to the beliefs of “us and them.” I want an end to the misconception that those with mental health issues cannot also be an OT or any other health professional. It almost makes me want to reveal to people my experiences with mental health issues to emphasise that yes, I have mental health issues but I’m not so different from all of them- in fact I blend in well with the rest of my cohort. I’ve had experiences in hospital where the news that I’m an OT student doesn’t receive the most positive reaction from the OTs there. That is what I want not to happen with the OTs of the future.