OT faculty member earns major honor

As an occupational therapist for nearly 40 years, Dr. Susan Noyes had always been aware of the Roster of Fellows Award. Presented by the American Occupational Therapy Association, it honors the best of the best in occupational therapy — people who made significant contributions to the profession, people who changed lives. 

She never thought she’d be nominated. 

And then she won.

“I’ve seen the rock stars and the real foundational folks in our profession get it over time. You kind of revere them, like, ‘Wow, they’re awesome.’ It’s not really anything I ever thought I’d get, nor did I aspire to. You just go about your career doing your job,” said Noyes. “The nomination was enough. . . When I found out I got it, I was just dumbstruck.” 

Noyes, Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy, specializes in mental health, a rarity in OT circles. She does the work of a traditional occupational therapist — helping people find ways to do the things they want or need to do — but her clients’ challenges may involve mental health more than physical. 

Dr. Susan Noyes

Where other therapists might evaluate how people stand or walk, Noyes has spent her career evaluating how people think and process information. 

One client’s past trauma, for example, made showering in her group home a deeply stressful, anxiety-provoking activity, so she put it off for as long as she could — sometimes for months. Noyes worked with staff to set up the woman’s bathroom with her comfort in mind, ensuring she had multiple bottles of shampoo, several towels, and any other items or rituals that she needed to feel safe. 

“The staff, as you can imagine, were like, ‘What? What is this about?’” Noyes said. “But we are literally going to do what she asks for that makes her feel comfortable in the bathroom. Because what’s the goal? What’s her goal? We all want the shower to happen.”

Noyes worked at Maine Medical Center in Portland for 20 years before joining Tri-County Mental Health in Lewiston as its first occupational therapist. She’s worked with clients with an array of mental health challenges, including schizophrenia, cognitive disorders, hoarding disorder, and overwhelming trauma. 

“Every new person that you meet is so much more than their diagnostic label,” Noyes said. “You have to know about the conditions and be informed by them, but meeting the person is really where it starts.”

Noyes estimates that just 2-and-a-half percent of occupational therapists specialize in mental health. She considers the group “small but mighty.”

Noyes began teaching OT at the University of Southern Maine in 2006 and moved to full-time in 2012. It was a tough decision to leave the field for the classroom, but it’s allowed her to help shape the next generation of therapists.

“I have so enjoyed being with students. What a great teaching gig, right?” she said. “I am teaching a select group of graduate students who know what they want to be, and what they want to be is what I’ve been.”

Teaching has also allowed her to promote mental health in occupational therapy. Some students have decided, like Noyes, to make it their speciality.

“It has been fun to watch them really get turned on by this idea that, yes, there’s absolutely a place for OT in mental health,” she said. “I really do feel like our students leave — no matter what practice area they go into — I feel they leave with a really solid foundation in making sure they are always attending to the whole person.”

Tammy Bickmore, Doctoral Capstone Coordinator for the Occupational Therapy program at USM, nominated Noyes for the award. She calls Noyes’ service to occupational therapy “tremendous.”

“Susan is an outstanding role model, mentor, clinician, and educator,” she said. “USM is so fortunate to have her as a professor at our university.”

Noyes will receive her award at a ceremony in April and can now use the honorary credential FAOTA, Fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association. 

Even though she’s no longer working in the field, Noyes’ time is still filled with OT. She recently completed a research sabbatical, finished an article on hoarding disorder, and is revising a chapter in the profession’s primary mental health textbook. She’s looking at restarting a special mental health group for the Maine Occupational Therapy Association. And she is, of course, teaching. 

“Inspiring the next generation of folks who are going to carry this beyond me, that’s my goal,” she said.