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In the aftermath of the 2018 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, occupational therapists across the state discussed in earnest how they could expand their services in schools to identify and help troubled teens earlier. “I’m a mother and an OT, and I know that our scope of practice includes mental health,” says Anjali Parti, OTD ‘09, OTR/L, an alumna of one of USAHS’ first Doctor of Occupational Therapy cohorts. “Now, not only do I have a professional interest—I have a visceral response, and a duty to do something about what’s happening in society with this increased violence.”
Dr. Parti and her colleagues in the Florida Occupational Therapy Association (FOTA) are advocating for OTs to perform more mental health evaluations of students and to educate teachers about the signs of mental illness. Her work is an example of how occupational therapists educated at the doctoral level can advocate for their profession.
Dr. Parti chairs FOTA’s Ad Hoc Special Interest Section Committee on OT and School System Tragedies, a group comprised of mental health–focused practitioners. In this capacity she co-authored, with three other OTs, an official position paper on how OTs can help address community violence. The national organization, AOTA, also asked her to co-author a second position paper on the topic, which is in process.
This year, Dr. Parti helped modernize the language of the scope of OT practice in Florida. The proposed wording further defines the role of OT in mental health, among other changes. Her colleague Sharon Rosenberg, MS-OT, OTR/L, CHT, the governmental affairs chair of FOTA, put this language forward in a bill introduced in the Florida Legislature’s 2021 session. Although the bill passed both chambers, the Senate leader did not sign it. “We hope to push this through in the next session,” Rosenberg says.
Rosenberg explains their end goal. “We would like for OTs to be recognized as qualified mental health professionals in Florida. Currently, this is only the case in 11 states. This is important for reimbursements. Now, insurance companies have leverage not to cover occupational therapy.” In 2018, Dr. Parti and Rosenberg collaborated on a bill to allow young students to receive OT services without a physician’s referral. This bill passed.
Dr. Parti’s former professor at USAHS, Kurt Hubbard, OTD, PhD, FAOTA, is also involved in these efforts. He recently authored a white paper lobbying for OTs to be reimbursed for mental health services.
Dr. Parti says that although the heartbreak of Parkland spurred their initiative, her group’s advocacy is much broader, encompassing a range of childhood mental health issues and their consequences. “OTs can be on the front lines of identifying problems,” she says. “Anything that a child struggles with, we can help. We need to advocate more for what we are licensed to do. Mental health interventions are the roots of our profession.”
She explains that to identify mental health issues, the OT can use assessments that reveal signs and symptoms of distress, such as the Beck Depression Inventory. Or the therapist can create their own questions to measure aspects of the child’s mental health, including anxiety, depression, conduct disorders, and issues with social skills. Then, “We set quantifiable goals that are linked to activities of daily living,” Dr. Parti says. “For example, the mother reports that the child hits the wall when he is stressed out. This disrupts daily life. The goal can be, ‘Parent will report decreased instances of violent behavior.’ The OT can focus on sensory processing strategies, as well as caregiver training, to predict and prevent these behaviors in their functional environment, such as school or home.”
Among states, Florida ranks 36th in access to mental health for youth, according to Mental Health America’s 2020 data, which compares the number of people in need to the available mental health funding. “I see this need as a huge opportunity that OTs can address,” Dr. Parti says. “But we need more money to pay OTs who are mental health specialists. There are some OT jobs in mental health—but not enough. And the ones that exist typically don’t pay well. This is a nationwide problem. OTs are fired up to do something about it.”
“We don’t want to overstep or take over the jobs of other mental health professionals,” Dr. Parti continues. “But at least OTs can have a louder voice on the team. We can show what we do to mental health professionals so they know our value.” She adds that OTs working in schools can earn additional certifications, such as through the organization Mental Health First Aid USA, where practitioners learn how to best respond to a student in crisis.
Becoming an OT
Dr. Parti grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida. As the daughter of parents who emigrated from India, “culturally, I’m supposed to be an MD,” she says. But as a senior in high school, she took part in a program at Shands Rehab Center, helping occupational therapists conduct research on dexterity and movement. “When I saw patients improving, I saw the joy in their eyes. That was my first lightbulb moment, when I realized that an OT can make a tangible impact. You hold onto those memories to get through difficult times in your training and career,” she says.
“I chose USAHS because they offered an OTD degree, and I liked the timeframe for completion compared to other programs,” Dr. Parti says. “I loved the faculty, cadaver labs, the rigor of the program. My cohort was not too large, and faculty were approachable. It had a prestigious feel. It’s the most challenging education I’ve had—stressful but manageable. And St. Augustine is a beautiful, charming city, with its historic center and the beach.” Since that time, our Doctor of Occupational Therapy program has changed, with a different curriculum and accreditation.
She secured a job at the top children’s hospital in Cincinnati just before she walked across the stage to graduate. After one year in this role, she returned to Florida to marry her husband, Vik. She worked in pediatrics, geriatrics, and acute care for the next few years, advancing to the role of site manager. But she wanted a different challenge in leadership. Her former professor, Dr. Hubbard, had just founded an OTA program at Remington College in Lake Mary, Florida, and he needed a clinical education coordinator. Dr. Parti got the job and stayed six years, also teaching as an adjunct professor.
“I love academics more than I expected,” she says. “I’m giving back to the profession in a different way. You have a hand in producing the next generation of clinicians—seeing confidence grow in them.” The collaboration between Drs. Parti and Hubbard continues in their advocacy work today.
Landing Her Dream Job
In 2016, Dr. Parti was offered an “incredible opportunity”: directing the Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program at Polk State College in Winter Haven, Florida. She took the position at the young age of 31. “I was nervous, but I undertook the challenge, and I’m very glad I did.” Polk State College admits a cohort of 24 students per year into the OTA program, a two-year associate of science degree program that “has a great reputation in the community,” she says.
“OTAs are often the face of intervention—the ones who spend more time with patients and implement the treatment plans,” she says. “We should prepare them as we prepare OTs.” The program features strong curriculum, fieldwork, and research components, as well as an emphasis on professional behaviors.
“It’s my charge to nurture and encourage the professional growth of OTAs,” she says. “As a younger program director, I try to be relatable to my students, with a modern leadership style that combines traditional quality assurance measures with emotional intelligence and mindfulness approaches.”
Dr. Parti and her husband Vik, a corporate and patent attorney with a firm in Orlando, have three young children, Aria (8), Shaan (6), and Vera (2). She says, with a smile, that their youngest “may or may not have been named after one of the core values in the AOTA Code of Ethics: veracity.” During the pandemic, she homeschooled her kids while working online. “I don’t know of any other job where I’d have so much balance as a working mom,” Dr. Parti says. And indeed, motherhood is what calls her to her advocacy work.
For information about how OT students can get involved in mental health advocacy work, contact FOTA.
For more on our OT students working in mental health, see this blog post.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers hands-on Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) and Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degrees. Join a collaborative cohort of peers who learn under the mentorship of expert faculty-practitioners. Practice with mock patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with patients across the lifespan, as well as advanced roles in research, practice leadership, and policymaking. Residential (online coursework + in-person labs on weekdays) and Flex (online coursework + in-person labs on weekends) formats are available.