Occupational Therapy lecturer Dr Nastaran Doroud brings a unique perspective to her Bendigo classes, and not just because of her international experience, although that’s a benefit, too.
Nastaran’s PhD research into considering people’s everyday lives and their stories of resilience and recovery in mental illness informs her values and teaching. It all began when she started work in adult acute and community mental health service in her home country of Iran after completing her Masters in 2011.
As an OT, she describes her role then as a holistic one, working to link people with health professionals and services to address their physical, social and psychological needs.
“We link people back to their communities and engage them in meaningful occupation; leisure, employment, housing, relationships, etc” Nastaran says.
“I started researching literature about the role of OTs in supporting people with mental health issues, and I realised there was a gap in the knowledge.
“I began listing to people’s stories; stories of resilience and strength in rebuilding a meaningful life. It gave me the inspiration to find out what their strategies were. Their voices, I thought, were missing from the literature and research, so I started to look at what we could do to address that gap.”
Nastaran contacted key OT academics around the world, including Professor Ellie Fossey, who was working at La Trobe’s Bundoora Campus at that time.
“I sent out a research proposal and La Trobe offered me the top-ranked scholarship to migrate to Australia and do my PhD full time,” she says.
The research, completed between 2014 and 2018, gave invaluable insights into the journey of recovery for people experiencing mental illness; that a person’s everyday life can be an important part of their recovery. In Australia Nastaran collaborated with people with serious mental health issues through her research that encouraged them to take photographs throughout their day and of what helped with their recovery.
“What we realised was that their recovery journey was embedded in the context of their everyday life,” she says. “In ordinary things, like going out for coffee, catching up with friends, setting up things for employment or study. Basically, in establishing a meaningful life in the community, re-establishing connections with family and friends and finding ways to contribute to the community.”
Nastaran would like to see her research translated into a program to help other practitioners and consumers benefit from the findings, which she is working on. In the meantime, she is having a positive influence on her students in Bendigo, through sharing her own clinical stories and her research.
Just as Nastaran graduated with a doctorate, a teaching position arose in the Bendigo OT course.
“I am passionate about people’s everyday lives, which are often taken for granted,” she says.
“Our students understand the value of the lived experience and learning from the people who are having first-hand experience. They learn about people’s occupational narratives as being interconnected with the social environments”.
“My ultimate hope is to enable students to develop the skills to go out and practice as competent OTs when they graduate.”
From Iran to Australia
Nastaran also brings a cultural perspective to the role of an OT, and how that can differ between countries.
She says in terms of mental health, there are many differences in supports and services between Australia and Iran, some political, others cultural.
She says while Australia offers more government support, both in health services, housing and welfare, in Iran there is a culture of family and extended family support, which, she says can also be a “double-edged sword” if people don’t have autonomy over their decisions and recovery.
She describes it as an eastern collective culture vs a western individualistic culture. “It’s not negative or positive, it’s just different.”
The same could be said for working in OT during this time of world-wide pandemic. Nastaran says despite people’s everyday lives being quite different due to restrictions and lockdowns, it was still possible to draw on her research to support people with their mental health.
“It’s quite a challenging time and OTs could play a really important role in relation to peoples’ mental health and adjusting to new routines and a new way of life,” she says. “This is where resilience comes in.”
She says taking a critical look at the social and political elements impacting life can enable resilience, action and recovery. She believes “people with lived-experiences of mental health issues are quite creative in finding alternative ways to recover and to flourish”.
For Nastaran, that has meant catching up with family and friends online, swapping the gym and pool for outdoor exercise, playing her piano and enjoying a night off cooking with takeaway food every now and then. And putting a positive spin on things; “not following all the bad news all the time” she says. “I have been separating myself from the negative messages as they come through and have tried to focus on the positive side of it; what can we learn from our experiences?”
These are positive thoughts for all of us during this national OT Week, where the theme is, fittingly, resilience.