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Occupational Therapy's Role in a School-Based Mental Health Task Force

Occupational Therapy's Role in a School-Based Mental Health Task Force
Sean Getty, MS, OTR/L
October 3, 2016

Introduction and Overview

Today I am going to talk about occupational therapy's role on a mental health task force within the school district where I work. To understand why I got involved, first we have to look at a series of events that led to a need for action.

Within our school district, there was an incident that occurred where nine high school students were charged in a fight that broke a boy's jaw. Headlines and news stations reported that students attacked each other with bats and brass knuckles in a racial tension-fueled off-campus brawl. Someone actually took video footage of this incident. The school decided to hold an open forum for the community.

The school sent out an email to everyone in the district asking if they would be interested in joining this task force that initially focused on prevention of bullying and to deal with this bullying situation. As an OT with a background in mental health, I saw this as not just an issue of bullying. The bullying and other behaviors stem from many other things that are going on with our youth today. Things that lead not only to bullying, but also to violence, suicide and substance use and abuse.


Approximately 28% of students ages 12 to 18 have been bullied physically, verbally, or online at least once in the past year -- more than one fourth of our students. Among high school students, 20% reported being bullied on the school grounds within the past year. Bullying has significant effects on our youth and adolescents. We see that there are significantly increased rates of depression and social anxiety, and compromised academic achievement. The increased likelihood that those who chronically bully will exhibit additional aggression and engage in criminal offenses. Those that bully and those that are bullied demonstrate worse outcomes in terms of psychosocial adjustment and decreased life satisfaction, decreased self-esteem and increased social isolation.

Violence by the Numbers

When you think about the violence that happens in the United States within schools, there are two incidents that shocked the world and stand out in our minds: the shootings at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary. One might assume that based off of the response to those incidences, violence would decrease within our schools. However, that is not the case, as evidenced by the following statistics:

1 = school shootings on average per week in 2015 (including colleges)

52 = school shootings in 2015

142 = shootings that have occurred since Sandy Hook

270 = shootings that have occurred since Columbine

81% = percentage of school shootings where someone had prior knowledge of the attacker’s plans

1,420,900 = non-fatal in-school victimizations of students 12-18 in 2013

(55 victimizations for every 1000 students)

During today’s talk, we will discuss why the violence and the bullying behavior are increasing, even though as a society, we are making an effort to focus on these issues. Even when a gun is not involved, the rates of victimization are quite high. They don't make sense. When you look at your own community, the violence and bullying is there. Occupational therapy can play a unique role to help address this problem. Using a collaborative approach with other disciplines, there is clearly a pivotal place for OTs to implement our therapy and bring our ideology to the table.

sean getty

Sean Getty, MS, OTR/L

Sean M. Getty, MS, OTR/L is Site Coordinator and Clinical Assistant Professor at Stony Brook University at Southampton.  His background is in community-based mental health recovery, where he has implemented multiple interdisciplinary programs for persons with mental illness.  He has worked with diverse cultural groups with community settings and has created an assessment tool to evaluate the impact of culture on an individual's occupations.  He has supervised over 250 students on fieldwork affiliations and has received two awards for fieldwork supervision.  He has presented about mental health recovery on state, national, and international platforms. He currently serves as board secretary for Connetquot Cares, a non-profit organization currently being established to address substance abuse and mental health via partnering the community and the school district.

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