OT Alum Focused On Mental Health Service During COVID-19

As an Occupational Therapy major at Dominican, Salvador Chávez ’16 MSOT ’17 decided it would be best for him to apply his OT skills to helping people with mental health disorders.

With May having been Mental Health Awareness Month, Sal feels he made the right decision.

“I recognized the value and saw the need for more OTs to work in mental health. OT is rooted in mental health when the profession started over 100 years ago and recognizes the therapeutic value of engagement in meaningful occupations as a method of coping with symptoms and promoting a balanced and holistic life,” says Sal, now a registered and licensed Occupational Therapist (OTR/L) for Mental Health & Addiction Services at El Camino Health in Mountain View.

“Unfortunately, often with the stigma and fear of working in a setting like mine, we are seeing a drop of OTs specializing in mental health, currently at 1% nationwide. And in these unprecedented times, more than ever, individuals are seeking mental health services, especially those who are battling symptoms of depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance abuse. It is also believed that more individuals will seek services in the months to come as a secondary effect of the global pandemic. This is a scary, nerve-wracking and unsettling time, but the good news is that there are services and resources available.”

Sal works in an inpatient acute adult hospitalization and outpatient program setting, providing OT services to a range of patients of different ages, diagnoses and backgrounds. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, he says there has been an increase in patients coming through Emergency Psychiatric Services who are considered a danger to themselves, danger to others and/or gravely disabled. They are connected to community resources and/or directed to inpatient hospitalization designed to save lives and provide a place to heal/recover and develop coping skills in order to move to the next level of care after stabilization.

Services are provided in a group setting that allows for patients to engage in meaningful activities while being supported in understanding how those can be incorporated into their daily life and draw similarities/shared learning from their peers.

“A majority of my work is done through therapeutic groups provided to my patients while assessing their current symptoms, fostering independence and supporting them in developing coping strategies to better manage everyday life,” Sal says. “This has become more difficult as I am currently required to wear a surgical mask, enforce social distancing and hand hygiene protocols and try to limit materials that are shared among patients usually in a group of 6-12 patients each. I have had to get creative and modify my OT groups in a way that is still safe and therapeutic for my patients. Regardless of the current limitations, I am still able to use grounding techniques and mindfulness, music, individually wrapped candy and the concepts of gratitude, neuroplasticity, and self-compassion.”

At the same time, Sal and other mental health OTs have to take care of their own mental and physical health. There is a high burnout and turnover rate because the work can be emotionally taxing.

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“This is where I have to be my own OT and practice what I preach, making sure to make time for the things that I enjoy like listening to music, walking my dog and reaching out to friends and family. I also have to remind myself to slow down and recognize my own anxiety and concerns during this time,” Sal says. “I encourage us all to find time to care for ourselves: try your best to stick to a daily routine, make time to sit in nature, find a balance between time alone and staying connected to others, seek services available in your area, and overall remember that what you are feeling is valid, that you are not alone in the anxiety/fear that has generated from COVID-19 and that the best we can do is stay informed and take it one day at a time.”

Sal believes his training in the School of Health and Natural Sciences in Dominican’s 4 + 1 OT program in acute care during his fieldwork experiences helped prepare him for this challenge.

“Dominican allowed me to experience first-hand the value of OT in acute care, under the supervision of a clinical instructor while practicing the skills required to enter the field as an entry-level OT,” he says. “Additionally, with courses specifically tailored to OT in mental health, I reviewed frames of reference, interventions and evidence-based practice that I continue to use as a professional currently working in the field. My network including professors in the department of OT have served as an additional resource and continued mentorship as I transitioned from student to working professional. I am so grateful to the department and am hopeful of taking on a student of my own in the next year to come, as well as become board certified in mental health through the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).”

In the meantime, Sal remains focused on his job. He is committed to providing evidence-based and therapeutic interventions to his patients and provides hope, humor and the occasional chocolate into his work. 

“OT is represented in the frontlines whether on the medical floor or addressing the secondary effects of the pandemic on a mental health unit,” Sal says. “I am so, so proud to play a part in these times.”

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