By Sarah Hannan
Recuperating after a major accident or coming around from mental instability can always be challenging. One will have to undergo several sessions of therapy that will rehabilitate one’s physical and mental stability and build self-confidence so they can go back to their former work lives or routines.
The practice known as occupational therapy was introduced to Sri Lanka following the Second World War to deal with returning veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). The therapy sessions were conducted by foreign therapists and the first Sri Lankan occupational therapist who underwent training in the UK was appointed to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Angoda in 1952.
With the increased requirement for local occupational therapists, the Department of Health Services appointed a special committee to establish occupational therapy training in Sri Lanka in 1954. In the following years, training was conducted through a short-term syllabus; however, in 1973, a committee headed by Dr. L.P.D. Gunawardana implemented a two-year course at the School of Physiotherapy at the National Hospital in Colombo. This training course was followed with a one-year internship at a government hospital. Consequently, occupational therapy training was commenced at the School of Physiotherapy in 1976. Since then, the name of the school changed to the School of Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy, which is what it’s called today.
The first batch of six occupational therapists graduated in 1979 and since then, there has been a regular influx of occupational therapists to the job market on an annual basis. Today, 105 occupational therapists work all over the country in government hospitals and 15 work in Army, Navy, and Air Force Hospitals. Some of them work in the private sector and overseas as well. Currently, 20 students are undergoing training.
The School of Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy is the only institute which trains occupational therapists in Sri Lanka. The course is conducted in English. A diploma certificate is awarded after two years of academic training and one year of successful work experience in a hospital.
In 2002, the Sri Lanka Society of Occupational Therapists was awarded full membership at the World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT), which is the international professional body of occupational therapists. In addition, individual memberships were also given as the WFOT recognised that the occupational therapy course conducted in Sri Lanka met international standards.
This week, The Sunday Morning Brunch visited the Occupational Therapy Unit (OTU) at NIMH to understand how patients benefit from the various programmes made available.
“Our programmes are customised to match each individual’s requirement. When the patient is receiving treatment at the hospital, one occupational therapist too would participate in the ward rounds along with the consultant psychiatrist. The doctor will assess the patient and then instruct us to recommend a programme that is suited for each individual. During these ward rounds, we ask the patient what they are interested in and also seek assistance from their family members to understand what the patient generally does as a hobby or occupation,” senior occupational therapist Geetha Abeygunasekara informed.
The OTU conducts skills development, vocational training, and leisure and recreational programmes to assist patients in regaining skills lost due to illness or in developing new skills that can help with recuperation, increasing their functional level, building confidence, preventing disability, and helping them return to a regular lifestyle whilst maintaining sound metal health. The skills development programmes include activities of daily living training group, anger management training group, life skills training group, social skills training group, reminiscence therapy group, creative writing and arts group, and community familiarisation visits.
The vocational training programmes include jewellery making, rug weaving, handicrafts, carpentry, computer training, gardening, patchwork and sewing, paperwork, chair caning, greeting card making, and leather crafts.
The leisure and recreational programmes include music therapy, indoor and outdoor sports, cookery, drama therapy, cinema shows, musical programmes, day outings and trips, celebrating social and cultural events, and training for occupational therapy students and visiting students from other disciplines.
“Last year in October, we teamed up with the National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA) to implement vocational training that would aid in contributing towards job security for patients who have recuperated.
“At present, the course duration is four months and the first batch of students received their certificates recently. We also keep these sessions open to the public and encourage young adults from the area to join in to follow the course. That way, the patients get a chance to socialise with a small group of the public before they step into the corporate world, and this helps break the stigma as well.”
Among the training activities that are conducted along with NAITA, patients can now enrol for bakery, handicraft, computer, and tailoring courses. Depending on the recommended programme, inpatients as well as outpatients are given a schedule to attend the training programmes. Furthermore, the OTU periodically holds exhibitions, trade fairs, and concerts, providing the trainees an opportunity to showcase their talent and earn from craft work.
“On mental health awareness day (World Mental Health Day), we have a concert with the participation of our staff, OTU clients, and inpatients. Practise sessions for the concert take place inside the OTU which has a stage, some musical instruments, and a sound system. We get everyone involved in planning these items and designing the costumes as well. Over time, we build a very good rapport with the patient/client as well as their families, and we constantly review their progress.”
Although it is a little-known practice, one cannot disregard the service the OTU and its therapists provide for a person recuperating from mental illness and trauma.