Occupational Therapists (OTs) are the unsung heroes of our communities. They work with people of all ages who have physical, social, or mental health requirements to be able to live their best lives. OTs work with people in a range of settings, including in hospitals, aged care facilities, the community, schools, and in people’s homes.
In Australia, OTs are celebrated annually each October during Occupational Therapy week. This year's theme, ‘What OT Means to Me’ enables OTs to share and reflect on their work from their perspective and to shine a spotlight on the care and professionalism they deliver to their clients.
La Trobe has helped produce many world-class, outstanding Occupational Therapists. To celebrate Occupational Therapy Week, here are some of our finest.
Harley supports vulnerable people in regional communities
Harley Hayes is the Victorian and Tasmanian State Lead at Everyday Independence, a national company that provides Occupational Therapy, Speech Pathology, Physiotherapy, and more for the people who need it most. He also works casually as a workshop facilitator in the OT space at La Trobe University.
‘My current role as the Victorian and State Lead has resulted in me spending more time supporting our team members to grow their skills and provide a service that makes a difference,’ says Harley.
Harley has moved between a number of roles since he graduated from the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University, but he still prefers working directly with clients.
‘I have been fortunate to have a go at different positions within the OT field. However, I love that I still get to be out actually working as an OT and supporting people and families.’
In the Occupational Therapy space, Harley first made a name for himself when he was recognised with an Early Career Excellence Award at the 2019 Australian Allied Health Awards. In 2020, he also received the Victorian Rural Health Rising Star award for demonstrating a passion for rural health as an OT in the Bendigo region, as well as Bendigo's Young Citizen of the Year award.
‘It was a really big surprise! At that stage of my career, I felt like I was still just finding my feet and learning the ropes. I was very lucky to have amazing OTs around me all the time, so I was always learning and striving to keep up with these great therapists.’
Harley says his greatest achievements are the ones where he gets to celebrate the clients he supports and their successes.
‘When a child goes to school for the first time, or a teen plays his first basketball game, or a young adult gets their first full time job – moments like those are special,’ says Harley.
The most meaningful part of being an OT for Harley is aiding clients to accomplish their personal goals.
‘Occupational Therapy means working alongside people to enable them to reach their potential and live the life that they want to live.’
Priscilla is delivering a more effective system of care
Dr Priscilla Ennals is a researcher and a Senior Manager of Research and Evaluation at Neami National – a community managed service delivery organisation which works in mental health, housing and homelessness, and suicide prevention across Australia.
‘As a researcher at Neami National, I might be travelling around Australia to visit any of our 90+ services, collecting data for different research and evaluation projects, or sitting in strategic or operational meetings shaping new mental health service offerings,’ says Priscilla.
When she first began her career, she worked one-on-one with clients who needed direct mental health support.
‘I worked in a clinical mental health service. I spent time working directly with individuals who were having challenges with their mental health.’
Priscilla has found herself in many roles over the years, and each time she has felt the challenge of having to learn new skills and the pressure of lack of experience weighing on her. She found that much like her clients; it’s about having the right support to succeed.
‘We all learn on the job and build confidence over time. Having good support and mentors is important during challenging times. I still go back to great friends I made during university and to people I have worked with along the way for advice and support.’
In her time as an OT, Priscilla has many things to be proud of, and she believes career achievements can come in many shapes and sizes.
‘Hearing about great things my clients and students have achieved and imagining I played a tiny role in that is something I’m proud of. I am also proud to be the Vice President of Occupational Therapy Australia and organising the National Occupational Therapy Conference next year,’ she says.
Priscilla believes OT has been the foundation for both her life and her expansive and satisfying career.
‘The things we do, as well as how we spend our time, and the environments in which we engage, all influence our health, wellbeing, sense of purpose and quality of life.’
Priscilla graduated from La Trobe University in 1991 with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Occupational Therapy), earned her Master of Occupational Therapy Practice in 2004, and completed her PhD in 2016.
Leeanne helps survivors of stroke to regain sensation
Professor Leeanne Carey is a world leading Occupational Therapist and Neuroscientist who is skilled in evidence-based rehabilitation and translation of neuroscience to stroke rehabilitation, as well as a researcher at La Trobe University.
The lead developer of SENSe therapy (Study of the Effectiveness of Neurorehabilitation on Sensation), Leeanne and her team have already helped hundreds of survivors of stroke improve their ability to undertake essential tasks and regain sensation.
‘SENSe therapy is a restorative approach to sensory rehabilitation that is founded on science and plasticity of the brain. It has shown to be effective in clinical trials and we are now upskilling therapists and making the therapy available to more survivors of stroke,’ says Leeanne.
Although a massive endeavour, challenges like this are the lifeblood of this complex field of research.
‘I enjoy a challenge – and as an occupational therapist and researcher – I have spent the last 30 years addressing the challenge of recovery after a stroke.’
Now, with SENSe therapy being more broadly used by a community of upskilled OTs, Leeanne can see the long-term value of her work, as well as the important impact it has made in the field.
‘My biggest achievement is to see the changes and hear from current SENSe therapists about the impact SENSe therapy has had on their clients' lives after a stroke and sensory loss.’
For Leeanne, OT means seeing the individual first, which offers the unique perspective of patient health and wellbeing which is reflected in her approach to research.
‘OT helps me to see holistically the strengths and challenges of the person I am working with in the context of the daily activities and occupations that matter to them. It allows me to use my knowledge in the context of the individual, and to creatively problem solve solutions with them in a way that matches their needs and goals.’
Leeanne graduated from La Trobe University in 1982 with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Occupational Therapy) and completed her PhD in Health Science in 1994.
Phoebe applies OT to improve mental health
Phoebe Williamson is the state-wide Educator for more than 500 occupational therapists working in clinical mental health at the Centre for Mental Health Learning, Victoria. Having just returned from the World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT) Congress in Paris, she’s inspired and reinvigorated to be part of the field.
‘It’s an exciting time to belong to our growing profession,’ says Phoebe.
In her position, Phoebe supports the implementation of occupational therapy leadership and workforce development across public clinical area mental health services in Victoria.
‘I connect with and listen to OTs, align and coordinate OT professional development activities, build evidence and quality, collate and use data about the role of OTs in mental health, increase collaboration and drive innovation and systems change’ she says.
The road hasn’t always been easy, says Phoebe.
'The Victorian mental health care system has been declared as broken and is undergoing much needed reform to be able to properly support people’s mental health, recovery and wellbeing.'
‘I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in this reform. I’ve found that the most impactful way to manage the challenges experienced was to get involved in service development, workforce development, quality improvement and research,’ she says.
Phoebe presented her published work from the Australian Occupational Therapy Journal (AOTJ) at the WFOT 2018, facilitated state-wide mental health OT education, developed a zero suicide strategy, and trained and implemented a Collaborative Recovery Model at an area mental health service.
Even with her numerous professional accomplishments, she shares that the most meaningful part of being an OT is seeing the impact of OT in peoples lives.
‘Ultimately, it's all focused on enabling people to live their best lives.’
Phoebe’s advice to anyone who is considering undertaking study in the field is to just do it.
‘There are so many possibilities within OT to stay engaged and inspired throughout your whole career - you’ll never be bored,’ she says.
‘And… Enjoy! The friends I’ve made are lifelong and there are many wonderful connections to support you in your ongoing learning and rewarding career.’