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Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves: Planetary occupational therapy – thoughts from an occupational therapy student 

15.05.2024

In recent years, the term ”planetary health” has gained attention, reflecting the intricate connection between human civilization and the natural world. As climate change accelerates, its effects affect every aspect of our lives, reshaping the landscape of our daily activities. For occupational therapists, who specialize in enabling participation in meaningful occupations, this presents a profound challenge. The impact of climate change on our health and daily routines cannot be ignored.

In this blog post, titled Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves: Planetary occupational therapy, we delve into the fascinating and crucial connection between the environment, our health, and our daily activities. Discover the role of occupational therapists in promoting sustainable wellbeing and how we can all contribute to healing our planet while healing ourselves.

The Climate Change affects our Daily Life

Planetary health may be a term unfamiliar to you, or you may not fully grasp its meaning. It refers to the health of human civilization in combination with the state of the essential natural systems. It’s widely acknowledged that the climate is undergoing significant changes, largely due to human activities and our treatment of the planet. These climate shifts have substantial repercussions on our health and, consequently, impact on our daily activities.

Occupational therapists, who work with individuals, groups, or populations using everyday activities in therapy to facilitate participation, are now faced with the challenge that people can no longer engage in their daily occupations as a result of climate change. 

Connecting the Dots: Climate, Health, and Daily Activities 

While climate change might not initially seem directly relevant to your role or importance as an occupational therapist, it does have a direct impact on your client’s health – and the activities they engage in daily life also affects the climate. Therefore, it becomes one of our responsibilities as occupational therapists to guide our clients in making sustainable occupational choices that contribute positively to their and planet’s health. 

The environment plays a significant role in occupational therapy practice. Many models we utilize incorporate environmental factors, such as the Model of Human Occupation (MOHO), the Person-Environment-Occupation-Performance model (PEOP), and even the Kawa model, which features the environment prominently. However, usually the aspects you typically consider in the environment are those in the immediate surroundings. Perhaps it’s time for us to broaden our perspective and consider the global environment. 

Environmental Effects on Mental Health and Occupation 

The consequences of global warming have not only altered our planet’s natural ecosystem but also impacted our health.

If you haven’t felt the changes of global warming, you might be a lucky person like me, I live in a European country with a good healthcare and school system, both of my parents have good jobs and therefore we can afford enough food and clothing. We have a good house with heating and maybe most importantly we have meaningful occupations. But that doesn’t mean the environmental changes won’t affect us. (Kato)

Global warming can increase respiratory illness because of air pollution, and it has effects on our mental health. The effects it has on a European citizen who is wealthy may seem very small and not important, but they are. They can affect your ability to work or to practice meaningful occupations. And they have an even bigger impact on people who aren’t as lucky. 

The environmental effects of global warming include the loss of biodiversity, deforestation, wildfires, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, forced migration, limited food supply, financial insecurity, and many more things. People are forced to leave their homes in search of safer places, leading to the need for new jobs, activities, and friendships. Leaving behind familiar places, people, and cultures due to safety concerns can result in occupational injustice, occupational deprivation, and occupational alienation. As occupational therapists, we can assist these individuals by helping them find new meaningful occupations.

Occupational Therapists as Global Guides – promoting Sustainable Wellbeing

How can we assist individuals feeling the impact of global warming? Well, this is a challenging question, and there isn’t a single correct answer. It entirely depends on the individual right in front of you, what their needs and desires are, and we must consider what they aim to achieve and what they aspire to do.

It’s evident that we cannot employ the same therapeutic approaches for individuals from different countries or backgrounds. Take refugee centers, for instance; these individuals have endured significant challenges just to reach these centers, and their journey doesn’t end there. They face ongoing uncertainties and numerous hurdles to overcome. They may experience feelings of occupational deprivation, injustice, or alienation.

In such situations, it becomes our responsibility as occupational therapists to provide them with clarity and certainty. Our role is to offer a sense of safety, empowerment and control, helping them find their purpose in society and, of course, assisting them in discovering meaningful occupations. 

All the dimensions, personal, professional and planetary wellbeing, are something that we as occupational therapists need to consider when working with our clients.

Sustainable wellbeing is described as an interconnected state of personal, professional, and planetary well-being that focuses on empowering individuals to cultivate health and happiness in themselves and their work environments while actively contributing to the ecological and societal welfare. This description is from “Sustainable Well-being — Education for Personal, Professional and Planetary Well-Being” (SWEPPP) project, in which Turku UAS is taking part of. The project aims to foster wellness across these three dimensions by producing a curriculum, courses and a guide within the subject of sustainable well-being. All the dimensions, personal, professional and planetary wellbeing, are something that we as occupational therapists need to consider when working with our clients. 

As mentioned earlier, the impacts of global warming extend beyond refugees or individuals with fewer resources. While it might have a more significant impact on them, everyone is affected. Therefore, as occupational therapists, we can support individuals in finding activities or occupations that hold meaning for them while also being sustainable for the planet. 

Sources

Algado, S. S., & Townsend, E. 2015. Eco-social occupational therapy. British Journal Of Occupational Therapy, 78(3), 182–186. https://doi.org/10.1177/0308022614561239 

Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists 2023. Planetary Health & Sustainable Occupations. https://caot.ca/site/adv-news/advocacy/PH-SO?nav=sidebar&banner=5 

Hess, K. Y., & Rihtman, T. 2023. Moving from theory to practice in occupational therapy education for planetary health: A theoretical view. Australian occupational therapy journal, 70(4), 460–470. https://doi.org/10.1111/1440-1630.12868 

Occupational Therapists For Environmental Action. (z.d.) OT and Climate — Occupational therapists for Environmental action. https://www.otenvironmentalaction.com/ot-climate 

”Sustainable Well-being – Education for Personal, Professional and Planetary Well-being” (SWEPPP) project: https://www.wellbeing4sustainability.eu/