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Exploring the value of occupational therapy in substance use settings

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Exploring the value of occupational therapy in substance use settings - The Occupational Therapy Hub

For the purpose of this article, 'substance use' referred to includes both licit (eg. Alcohol, prescribed medications) and illicit (cannabis, non-prescribed opiates and opioids etc) and does not seek to make judgements on their use. Whilst this article primarily focuses on those in contact with services, it should be recognised that substance use is ubiquitous and embedded into culture, both on a national basis and with local cultural influences. Evidence-based interventions may be transferable to any area of practice, where it is appropriate and agreeable to explore the influence of individuals' substance use on their occupational participation. However, intervention should not necessarily be focused on the use of substances or abstaining. There may be benefits to supporting service users to explore the occupational impacts of their use.

Key definitions

There is no fixed definition of addiction, although many refer to the psychological and behavioural elements, incorporating repetitive behaviours that may result in a loss of controlled use, emotional distress and harm. Dependency refers to the physiological changes of which tolerance and withdrawal are evident. The experience of addiction can be equally as harmful without the presence of physical dependency.

Substance use, addiction and dependency

In 2021, there were over 275,000 adults in contact with substance use services, with over 130,000 entering treatment that year (UK Gov, 2021). More than half (56%) in treatment were over 40 years old, with 3:1 male to female. The harms of addiction and dependency are associated with:

  • premature death

  • insecure housing and homelessness

  • poorer physical health outcomes

  • stigma

  • insecurity of employment

  • poverty

  • relationship breakdown and isolation

  • unrecognised or untreated mental health needs

  • greater risk from blood-borne viruses and non-communicable diseases

(Department of Health and Social Care, 2017)

Individually, these inequalities have the potential to disrupt occupational performance in a wide-ranging and lasting way. Collectively, they present a substantial constellation of bio-psycho-social challenges.

Use of substances and addiction is present across the life course and is linked to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) (Public Health Wales, 2017). The more ACEs an individual experiences, the more likely they are to use substances (Petley and Davies, 2022), with trauma in adulthood also associated with increased prevalence. In addition, the Drink Wise, Age Well project (2020) identified ‘life transitions’ in older adults as a factor increasing risk and hazardous alcohol use. The project found older adults (50+) to be at greater risk from the harms associated with alcohol and that divorce, retirement, bereavement, children leaving home and changes in health status were associated with greater risk. Substance use in this population has been found to go unrecognised, unaddressed and under-represented in policy (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2018). Similarly, Addiction UK (2020) found a paucity of research concerning addiction and neurodiversity.

The dated, moralistic views on addiction and substance use remain, fuelling stigma and a lack of understanding that recovery does not rely on will power alone. The ‘disease model’ of addiction has been widely accepted and has increased understanding of neuroanatomy and challenged stigmatised thinking. Gutman (2006) detailed how the disease model contributes to the frequent relapsing nature of addiction and implications for occupational therapy intervention. Lewis (2017) challenges this model, arguing that it is ‘development, not disease’, as the brain is only doing what it was evolved to do when experiencing please or rewards. Morris, Cox, Moss and Reavey (2022) argue that the disease model has served to ‘other’ those experiencing addiction and drives narratives around abstinence and ‘positive new sobriety’, at the expense of more diverse representations of recovery.

Exploring the value of occupational therapy in substance use settings - The Occupational Therapy Hub

Occupational Therapy, substance use and occupational participation

Occupational Therapy’s primary focus is on ‘occupations’, all those things in a day that we want to, need to or have to do. It is argued that occupational participation is an important determinant of health (Law, 2002) and that engagement in meaningful occupations promotes health and wellbeing (Wilcock and Hocking, 2015). This assumption has been challenged by Twinley (2021), who developed the concept of ‘the dark side of occupation’. Twinley suggest that not all participation is health-affirming and further research is required to develop our understanding of occupational participation, in occupations that may be detrimental to health.

The idiosyncratic nature of occupational performance may carry both health promoting and harming elements, influenced by individual contexts and environments.

Occupational therapists have practiced in addiction settings since the 1950’s (Hossack, 1952), but do not typically form part of the current substance use service multidisciplinary mix. There is evidence that some elements of ‘occupation-focused’ intervention are delivered through traditional approaches without occupational therapists’ involvement (Wasmuth, Pritchard and Kaneshiro, 2016). The value occupational therapists could bring to the setting was explored in depth by Wasmuth, Crabtree and Scott (2014), who coined the term ‘addiction as occupation’. They identified addictions as an attempt to ‘self-organise’, emphasising the importance for individual’s identities, roles, routines and social lives. When individuals attempted to abstain, a ‘breakdown of self’ is experienced, which may severely impact mental health and function, presenting a barrier to recovery. In later work, Wasmuth (2016) argued that recovery requires far more than simply replacing occupations, calling for ‘opportunities to engage in new occupations, geared specifically towards reshaping social life, identities, habits, roles and routines’.

‘By acknowledging addiction as an occupation and then focusing on this occupation’s gains and harms, occupational therapists may be in a position to gain trust of clients and help them to make adjustments to their occupational lives that are personally beneficial’ (Wasmuth, Crabtree and Scott, 2014).

Exploring the value of occupational therapy in substance use settings - The Occupational Therapy Hub

More recently, Vegeris and Brooks (2022) built on this argument, drawing attention to the need for individuals to ‘assign new meaning’ to occupations. By ‘developing new patterns of occupation, in the form of roles, routines, and connections, which are congruent with the construction of one’s newfound occupational identity’, they argued this can alleviate the losses felt in the early stages of recovery, that are associated with frequent relapse. This underlines the necessity for early intervention that focuses on occupational participation.

Whilst recovery is both a highly subjective experience and a collective movement, it has also been explored in the context of substance use as an ‘occupational transition’ (Vegeris and Brooks, 2022; Nhunzvi, Galvaan and Peters, 2017; Luke and Began, 2014). Early work by Blair (2000) highlighted the ‘health protective’ influence of occupation throughout the ‘discontinuity’ experienced during transitions. Blair also drew attention to the voluntary/involuntary and planned/unplanned nature of occupational transitions and the link to health outcomes. This is especially relevant when substance use-related harms lead individuals to find themselves within the healthcare system, for example possibly requiring an unplanned detox, due to acute physical or psychiatric illness. When stripped of a way of coping, an identity, the means to connect with others, a structure to one’s life etc, relapse is the common experience and a harm reduction approach may be more suitable to the individual.

A recent scoping review of interventions for substance use (Ryan and Boland, 2021) found occupational therapy to be a good fit with most services. Ryan and Boland found the most reported interventions underpinned development of life skills and supported re-engagement in meaningful routines. They concluded that role restoration and maintenance is essential in recovery - and that going beyond teaching skills to prioritise occupational engagement was the most effective approach. Jarrard et al (2021) similarly concluded that occupational therapists can ‘apply their expertise and knowledge of daily occupations, time management skills and positive coping strategies to support restoration of healthy habits and routines in the recovery process’. Since there is no uniform intervention for substance use, occupational therapy’s client-centred approach, based on the dynamic interaction of multiple factors, furthers it’s suitability in this setting (Chaudhuri, 2018).

The presence of occupational therapists in the substance use setting is documented along with the types of interventions being delivered. A common theme in recent literature is a calling out of the lack of evidence on how effective interventions are (Vegeris and Brookes, 2021; Rojo-Mota, Pedrero-Pérez and Huertas-Hoyas, 2017; Amorelli, 2016).

There are complexities in describing occupational therapy interventions (RCOT, 2018), but we must decide on what we’re trying to measure, be it quality of life and satisfaction, occupation-focused goals achieved, or level of global occupational performance and participation.

Goals may be unrelated to substance use.

Exploring the value of occupational therapy in substance use settings - The Occupational Therapy Hub

In summary

Use of substances can be associated with significant occupational disruption, but may also support performance. The conceptual framework is well established to articulate our role and evidence exists describing the common types of intervention delivered. Applying the occupational perspective - whilst understanding individuals’ dynamic of gains and harms - Occupational Therapy can influence recovery. Occupational Therapy in this setting should not necessarily be focused on substance-related outcomes, as individuals have needs and goals beyond this, which can influence occupational performance, quality of life and health status. Our presence in the multidisciplinary team can provide a different perspective on addiction and dependency, that challenges stigma, promotes social inclusion and may encourage engagement in services. We can apply our specialist skills to collaborate with individuals on recovery-orientated goals, that may reduce harm and create a life with renewed hope and purpose.

In addition

Occupational therapy in substance use arguably remains an emerging area of practice, until its effectiveness is proven. A recent networking exercise (Fisher, 2022) in the UK and Ireland has identified over 20 occupational therapists working in substance use services with more worldwide. Occupational Therapy practitioners were found to work within community specialist substance use services, adult social care, inpatient detox and residential rehabilitation services amongst others. An ‘Occupational Therapy and Substance Use Network’ (OTASUN) has been established, to consolidate professional identity; offer peer support; share resources and knowledge and ultimately further the evidence of occupational therapy in this setting.


For responses or discussion, please do not hesitate to contact the author on the credentials below:

Exploring the value of occupational therapy in substance use settings - Jon Fisher - The Occupational Therapy Hub



Amorelli, C.R. (2016). Psychosocial Occupational Therapy Interventions for Substance-Use Disorders: A Narrative Review. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 32(2), pp.167–184.

Blair, S.E.E. (2000). The Centrality of Occupation during Life Transitions. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 63(5), pp.231–237.

Chaudhuri, J. D (2018) The role of Occupational Therapy in the Management of Recovery from Substance Use Disorders (SUDs). Addiction Research and Medicine. Vol 1(1). Accessed electronically 12/08/2022.

Fisher, J. (2022) Helping people make a lasting recovery from addiction. OT News. Available electronically from: OTnews - The Official RCOT Magazine (Members Only) - RCOT

Gutman, S.A. (2006). Why Addiction Has a Chronic, Relapsing Course. The Neurobiology of Addiction. Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 22(2), pp.1–29.

Hossack, J. R (1952) Clinical trial of occupational therapy in the treatment of alcohol addiction. American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 6(6): 265-6.

Jarrard, P., Cunningham, S., Granda, P., Harker, P., Lannan, T. and Price, K. (2021). Who Are You Without Your Substance? Transforming Occupational Time Use in Recovery. Modern Applied Science, 15(6), p.19. doi:10.5539/mas.v15n6 p19.

Law, M. (2002). Participation in the occupations of everyday. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 56, 640–649. doi: 10.5014/ajot.56.6.640.

Morris, J., Cox, S., Moss, A. C. and Reavey, P. (2022) Drinkers like us? The availability of relatable drinking reduction narratives for people with alcohol use disorders. Addiction Research and Theory. Ahead of print 1-8.

Nhunzvi, C., Galvaan, R. and Peters, L. (2017). Recovery From Substance Abuse Among Zimbabwean Men: An Occupational Transition. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health, 39(1), pp.14–22.

Petley, L. and Davies, B. (2022) A Review and Analysis of the Experiences of Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma of Service Users in a Substance Use Service in South Wales. Addict Res. 2022; 6(1): 1-5.

Public Health Wales (2017) Adverse Childhood Experiences and their association with chronic disease and health service use in the Welsh adult population. Public Health Wales. Available online: ACE Chronic Disease report (9) (2).pdf (

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Rojo-Mota, G., Pedrero-Pérez, E.J. and Huertas-Hoyas, E. (2017). Systematic Review of Occupational Therapy in the Treatment of Addiction: Models, Practice, and Qualitative and Quantitative Research. American Journal of Occupational Therapy. [online] 71(5), p.7105100030p1. Available at:

‌Ryan, D.A. and Boland, P. (2021). A scoping review of occupational therapy interventions in the treatment of people with substance use disorders. Irish Journal of Occupational Therapy, 49(2), pp.104–114.

Twinley, R. (2021). Illuminating the dark side of occupation: International perspectives from occupational therapy and occupational science. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge.

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Wasmuth, S.L., Outcalt, J., Buck, K., Leonhardt, B.L., Vohs, J. and Lysaker, P.H. (2015). Metacognition in persons with substance abuse: Findings and implications for occupational therapists. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 82(3), pp.150–159.

Wasmuth, S., Pritchard, K. and Kaneshiro, K. (2016). Occupation-Based Intervention for Addictive Disorders: A Systematic Review. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 62, pp.1–9.

Wilcock, A.A. and Hocking, C. (2015). An Occupational Perspective of Health. 3rd ed. Thorofare, NJ, USA: Slack Incorporated.

3 comentarios

13 dic 2022

Your article is an interesting read. I’m currently working in a department where there is no Occupational Therapist. We trace, test & treat individuals with drug & alcohol addiction for Hep C. I feel there is so much more that could be done in this service if there was OT involvement. A perfect opportunity to go that step further and start the foundation of a therapeutic relationship and find out so much more about the person. To offer our multi faceted skills and deliver person centred occupational interventions to assist with recovery. I’m trying hard to voice this as much as I can..I hope I can persuade to have an OT post created…about 18 months would be perfect timing for…

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19 dic 2022
Contestando a

Hello Lyndsey. Thank you for your comments. It's great to hear you're thoughts about developing this role. If you drop me an email I would happily share more literature/evidence in support of this.

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Such an excellent and efficient article. Well explained and very well informative.

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