What I wish I had known: being a male in occupational therapy

I am a final year occupational therapy (OT) student at UQ and over the last four years I have achieved things I never could have imagined. I want to share with you my journey, help disprove any misconceptions about the industry and hopefully inspire more males to consider this rewarding career.

Grade 12 – I have no idea what to do

In grade 12 I had absolutely no idea where I would end up in 12 months’ time, let alone pick a life-long career. I was your typical guy in school: I enjoyed sports, technology and building things. Many people suggested that I should do a trade, but from the start I knew that wasn’t for me. Wherever I ended up I knew I wanted to learn about something health related and I wanted to go home at the end of every day, feeling like I had helped someone.

We were inundated with information about the different health degrees, but it was hard to understand how exactly they were all different. I guess sometimes having too many options can be challenging. I know, first world problems!

At the recommendation of a family member, I decided I would give the Bachelor of Occupational Therapy a go. I applied to UQ through QTAC and received my letter of acceptance a few months later. I had no idea at that point what occupational therapy really was, but I knew it was a degree in health and that was enough for me. I was certain I would figure the rest out as I went.

First year – Where are all the other guys?

On my first day of university I found myself in a lecture with all the other students in my year. As more people filed in I realised that my 100+ student cohort was 90% female. I instantly panicked and wondered what I had gotten myself in for.

I certainly did not feel excluded being male. I made friends with a large group of ladies, who I am still friends with to this day. However, I couldn’t help wondering, why there were so few guys? Was there something I was missing?

To my delight, in my first lecture they gave us a definition of the profession, “Occupational therapists help people of all ages to overcome barriers that affect their ability to engage in the everyday activities that are meaningful and important to them.” I wasn’t sure what this would look like or involve me doing, but I was excited and equally confused as to why this valuable profession would deterred so many guys.

Second Year – Understanding occupational therapy

By my second year I felt confident that I knew what OT was about. I memorised the definition to tell my friends and family, as it seemed many of them didn’t know what OT was ether. “Occupational therapists support people to do the day-to-day things that they want or need to do.” It was slightly vague, but intentionally so. Occupational therapists can work in so many different areas that it is impossible to list them all.

Three of the areas stood out to me:

  • Rehabilitation – Supporting those who have sustained injuries or trauma to do the things they want and need to do.
  • Community – Visiting people in the community and working with them to achieve their potential.
  • Mental health – Supporting clients with a variety of conditions.

The knowledge we covered up to this point was extremely interesting. In anatomy, we learnt how to identify structures within the body. In physiology, we learnt how complex physical and neurological conditions function. In classes, we learnt about conditions such as schizophrenia and cerebral palsy and how they impact daily life.

Third Year – The start of clinical placement

In third year we started our clinical placements, where we worked alongside qualified occupational therapists to assist with hands-on learning. I was placed in the Princess Alexandra Hospital in the Spinal Injuries Unit. My role was to help people who had recently had a spinal cord injury get back to doing the things they wanted and needed to do, e.g. cooking, writing, you name it. One specific example was using a Nintendo Wii as a rehabilitation tool, where Mario Kart was used to simulate using your arms to drive for a period of time.

I learnt how to prescribe, customise and use a power wheelchair. Other things I learnt included using technology to allow people to control their phones using only their lips and how they control computers using only their eyes. I also learnt how to make thermo plastic splints to prevent joints from shortening during peoples sleep.

There were no other male OT’s in my team of six. The clinicians did explain that there were very few male OT professionals, but still I couldn’t figure out why.

Fourth Year – Breaking down my own misconceptions

This time I was placed in the mental health ward, which initially I did not want to do. I imagined that it would involve too much feelings, talking and emotions for me. I wanted to do practical things like I had the previous year; that was what I enjoyed about OT.

While on my 10 week placement I realised that mental health is not at all what I imagined it to be. Every day was something different and unexpected, and when I went home at the end of every day I knew I was making a significant difference in someone’s life.

I got the opportunity to travel out to people’s homes in the community, to see how they lived day-to-day with mental conditions. We spent a great deal of time getting to know our patients, which after 10 weeks made the goodbyes that much harder.

I learnt the right questions to ask and the right ways to ask questions, in order to identify if someone was becoming unwell. We always kept an eye out for uncharacteristic changes in the patients’ lives, e.g. spending an unusually large amount of money, looking for speech rate increases or even small changes like questioning why a patient may have stopped doing the things they usually enjoy. By spending time with these people and offering advice we were actively working to keep them out of hospital.

Current Day – Almost graduation time

Here I sit today, nearing the last few months of my degree, still trying to understand why so few males would choose to study occupational therapy. I don’t believe there is just one answer, but I do think that a large part of it is not understanding what occupational therapists actually do. If this was more widely known, I think males would be jumping at the chance to study OT.

So here are the things I think guys, in particular, will love about occupational therapy:

  • Going home each day knowing you made a real difference in someone’s life.
  • Working in a profession where you can work in a wide variety of fields, keeping the job interesting and exciting every day. Areas vary from pediatrics to geriatrics, or from mental health to spinal cord and injury rehabilitation.
  • Being able to change your field of work without needing a new degree. As males we tend to be slightly indecisive so this keeps your options open.
  • Being able to provide hands-on, direct patient/client care on a daily basis. OT as a career and degree is extremely practical, getting you out of a chair and straight into the action.

About the author…

My name is Michael Tilley, and I am in my final year of a Bachelor of Occupational Therapy (Honours) at UQ. I have many interests outside of university, including sports, technology and woodwork. I am writing this post in the hope of inspiring males in high school to consider OT as a career, to challenge the gender imbalance within the profession.

 

Last updated:
29 September 2016