Promoting Mental Health: OT Represented at Exclusive Mental Health Symposium
By Stephanie Yamkovenko
Occupational therapy was represented at an exclusive invite-only symposium on mental health policy in early November. AOTA’s president elect Virginia Stoffel, PhD, OT, BCMH, FAOTA; AOTA legislative representative Ralph Kohl; and AOTA member Margaret Swarbrick, PhD, OT, CPRP, FAOTA, attended the 28th Annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy.
“It is significant that AOTA has been invited to this symposium to be a voice among an important group of mental health practitioners, joining colleagues from psychiatry, nursing, social work, psychology, and more recently, peer support specialists,” says Stoffel.
The symposium focused on moving beyond stigma in mental health and advancing the inclusion of people with mental illness. Participants learned about new approaches to housing, employment, and integrated care. Swarbrick participated as a panelist discussing employment issues for individuals with mental illness, and it was the first time an occupational therapist was invited to a panel in the Carter Symposium’s 28 years.
“I was fortunate to be invited to present on a panel,” says Swarbrick. “I shared my personal and professional experiences that illustrate the valuable role employment plays in addressing stigma and creating more opportunities for social inclusion. Focusing on employment, housing, integrated care, and wellness are importance places where OTs can assume a key lead role.”
Also in attendance at the symposium were representatives from the Obama Administration, including Paolo del Vecchio, director of Mental Health Services at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), and representatives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Stoffel and Kohl participated in several working groups focused on public health, law, policy, and research relating to mental health. The two were able to represent the profession by actively participating in the workgroups, which focused on formulating specific recommendations to help guide the Carter Symposium.
Occupational therapy’s participation in the symposium helped elevate the profession’s important role in mental health. AOTA continues to participate in efforts to highlight the role of occupational therapy, including helping to get a bill introduced in the House of Representatives that would add occupational therapy to the federal definition of “Behavioral and Mental Health Professional.”
AOTA Federal Affairs staff believe many states use this list for guidance when determining similar state level lists of qualified behavioral and mental heal professionals. Being included in the federal list would give occupational therapy a great deal of leverage to push for similar changes or additions at the state level.
“The legislation is introduced in the House and we are working to get it introduced in the Senate,” says Kohl. “We have several groups that have signed on to a letter in support of our efforts, and we need AOTA members to help by contacting their legislators to encourage them to support this important piece of legislation.”
Participants in the Carter Symposium were excited and enthusiastic about how the U.S. appears to be experiencing a national transformational change by moving beyond mental health stigma. “The symposium focused on stigma, which was the topic of focus 28 years ago,” says Stoffel. “We all recognize that stigma is quite different today than 28 years ago, yet we have so much more to go to be sure that people with the lived experience of psychiatric disabilities experience full inclusion and full participation in everyday life. Also, we want to be sure that occupational therapy is a recognized profession among those who deliver important services to people living with mental health and substance use challenges, promoting recovery.”
Stephanie Yamkovenko is AOTA’s staff writer.