A conversation about mental health in occupational therapy with Jess Pinson

If you google ‘mental health for occupational therapists’, you will find endless results on the work occupational therapists do to promote mental wellbeing. 


But what services are available for occupational therapists in need of support? How can you prioritise your own mental health, when your entire professional existence is caring for other people? Is it possible to practice what you preach at the end of a long working day?


This week, we spoke to Jess Pinson, who shared her personal experiences as an occupational therapist on the NHS frontline.

What is the role of an occupational therapist? 


“I always say we are somewhere between a physiotherapist and a psychologist. It’s all about helping people who have an illness or injury to re-engage in meaningful activities, such as dressing, cooking or going back to work.


“Ultimately, it’s a multifaceted approach which is concerned with both the individual’s mental and physical health.” 


“Put simply,” says Jess, “occupational therapists enable people who have been struck by illness to get back to their day-to-day activities.” 


To illustrate this further, she asks us to picture a patient in hospital who loves cooking:


“It is my job to assess whether the individual could return to cooking safely, after being discharged. If not, then we would look at how we could adapt their environment to mitigate any risks involved, while still allowing that person to be as independent as possible. For example, by installing equipment which makes things easier and safer for them.” 


What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered?


Jess tells us that the NHS crisis has put an enormous amount of pressure on her ability to do her job. 


“A lot of what I do is make recommendations for people being discharged from hospital,” she explains. 


“However, mental health services are being overstretched, waiting lists are getting longer and people are not getting the care they need. Instead they are stuck in a sort of limbo where they are well enough to leave hospital, but not well enough to go home before receiving social care support.” 


Currently, up to 13,000 patients are unable to leave hospital each day due to a shortage of community care in the UK. 


How do you prioritise your mental health in a role so focused around caring for others? 


Over the years, we have seen a staggering increase in the number of NHS staff who have struggled with their mental wellbeing – especially since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. We asked Jess how she copes as someone who experiences the chaos of working on the NHS frontline on a daily basis: 


“It’s a really difficult one because we always tell people to prioritise their self care but the job is extremely draining,” she says. 


“You’re dealing with a lot of emotions, and at times, seeing things that are traumatising.” 


“So how do you prioritise your own mental health?” we asked. 


“I don’t have a perfect answer,” Jess admits.


“In fact, there have been a few occasions where I’ve become really ill from not looking after myself properly and had to take time off.” 


She explains that a lot of people who go into mental health are so focused on helping people, that they forget to prioritise their own mental health in the process. 


“It’s a work in progress – it’s all about the basic things like eating well, taking your weekends to relax, going to yoga…” 


“I don’t always follow that advice myself!”. 


Are there many services available for OTs who are struggling? 


“The amount of help available has improved,” says Jess. 


“We have access to health and wellbeing workshops, support services – the other day we even received a self-care package with facemasks and eyepatches! It’s definitely become more of a central focus for the NHS.” 


Why is it then, that when you google ‘mental health services for occupational therapists’ a list of results related to the mental health services provided by occupational therapists pops up, rather than services for occupational therapists? 


“Unfortunately not everyone is aware of the support available,” explains Jess. 


“That’s why whenever I supervise staff, I point them in the right direction”. 


Check out our blog on the newly launched mental health hubs for NHS staff to learn more about the support available. 


What’s the most rewarding aspect of working in occupational therapy?


“Seeing the change in patients – seeing them go from a hopeless state and believing they haven’t got a future, to setting goals with you and having the confidence in themselves to turn around and say ‘I don’t need you anymore’.” 


“I do love my job, despite all the difficulties and structuring of the NHS – the patients who need you will always be there and that’s the rewarding part.”


One piece of advice you wish you’d been given at the start of your OT career? 


“Get ready to be thrown in the deep end, you’re not going to be hand-held!”.


“That’s the reality of it,” Jess adds. 


She tells us the transition from being a student, to being on the ward, is quite the jump in terms of independence. 


“New starters who dive straight in always do really well, whereas the ones who are overwhelmed early on don’t tend to stay.” 


“Trust yourself – you’ve been a student for two years – you’ll be able to do this,” she concludes, before running off to her next client.


Amaré Health would like to thank Jess Pinson for taking the time to talk to us (all NHS  chaos considered!). 


We hope this interview helps provide a little bit of insight into the realities of being an occupational therapist for those interested. 


Remember, help is always available and you can reach out to our team if you have any career-related queries or concerns. 


Looking for a career in occupational therapy? Give us a call on 0203 929 4017 to find out more about our current vacancies