Some everyday tasks like meal preparation, shopping or just making conversation are at times challenging for someone suffering from a serious mental illness.
For mental health worker, Nicolette Knighton, a graduate occupational therapist with Broadmeadows Adult Inpatient Unit, being part of her patients’ journey to recovery is the most satisfying part of her job.
“It is heart warming to see someone smile after months or get excited when they go out for a walk by themselves or to see a depressed person confidently going back into the community, getting their driving license, returning to study or moving into their apartment,” says Ms Knighton.
“It is rewarding to see someone recover.”
Ms Knighton shares some insights from her unfolding career.
How does occupational therapy assist patients with a mental illness?
It helps teach patients basic learning and coping skills, relaxation, maintaining routine and daily activity, regularising sleep patterns and overcoming social activity barriers. This might include motivating our patients and finding opportunities for them to interact socially in an environment that doesn’t make them feel like an outsider.
We work with patients to enable them to [set] their own health goals and help them have a say in their own treatment.
We help patients find employment, facilitate discussions with the employer or connect them with organisations like Social Firms Australia, a not-for-profit organisation committed to creating accessible employment for people with a mental illness or disability.
Educating people with a mental illness about healthy eating and exercise is also vital. Some medicines may cause sedation and can affect a patient’s metabolism, increasing their weight and risk of diabetes.
Tell us a bit more about the work you do for patients in the adult inpatient and community care units.
When in an inpatient unit, people are acutely unwell and can be a risk to themselves through neglect, [they may be] unable to eat and drink or live in their own accommodation.
Their discharge plan, part of which I would oversee, includes follow ups and future case management and [making] recommendations to a general practitioner, psychiatrist or psychologist. Family and friends play a very important part, if they are willing to support. We connect the person with the mental illness to other means and accommodation, [to] places that provide meals or other support.
Patients can spend up to two years in Community Care Units. In these units we help patients achieve rehabilitation goals [such as] overcoming social anxiety, re-learning skills they may have lost like personal and domestic care or how to maintain routine. We also help them find independence, find a vocation or a job, and find their own accommodation.
Occupational therapists can work across a wide field from rural health to sport or general private practice. Why did you choose to work in mental health?
I have always been fascinated with the facets of mind and how it works so mental health was a natural fit for my first job.
Mental health extends to all areas and is important for recovery from any kind of condition. The skills I have developed by working in mental health are useful in any area of specialisation.
Could you list the skills required to be a successful occupational therapist in mental health?
You need to be a good listener and have a good sense of observation. [You need to] encourage people to tell their stories, be creative and receptive when patients come up with their own solutions to their problems. Good interaction and communication skills are also helpful.
Did you have pre-conceived ideas about the mental health sector before you started working?
I thought it was risky to work in mental health partly because of how mental health is portrayed in media. The headlines focus on adverse events, and not the pleasant ones where someone has had positive impact or made miraculous recovery.
Of course, patients can [present] a risk [to] themselves and others but often this is because they are scared and vulnerable. They aren’t bad people.
I have learnt that as mental health practitioners, our job is to make them and us feel safe and reduce the risk.
Was it difficult to break into the sector?
I was lucky. At the start of university, I was told it was impossible to get into mental health. But by the time I completed my Masters in Occupational Therapy Practice from LaTrobe University, a lot of positions opened up and the industry had addressed the need for graduate opportunities.
I applied directly to this position and got my placement during university.
What are your career aspirations including any plans for further study and training?
I’d like to learn more about sensory modulation techniques: it’s a fairly new area in health that helps change behaviour through sensory input such as sound, touch or movement. It can affect a patient’s mood and also help patients calm down or be more alert. For example, someone who is anxious before a meeting would benefit from taking a brisk walk. A common technique to help people feel safe when sleeping, is to sleep with a heavy blanket, as they are comforted by the pressure the blanket creates.
What message would you give to someone contemplating a career in mental health?
It would be the same for both graduates and those looking for a career change.
Try and spend a day at a mental health service. It will help determine if it is the right fit for you and may lead to placement opportunities. Talk to people in similar positions to get an idea of what it is really like.
Don’t have a One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest impression about mental health like I did.
For more information about careers in mental health or to apply for jobs in Victoria, visit: www.health.vic.gov.au/mentalhealth/careers