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#STEMStories: Itumeleng, Lecturer, South Africa

Name: Itumeleng Tsatsi 
Role/Occupation: Lecturer, Occupational Therapy.
Country: South Africa

Itumeleng Tsatsi a lecturer in Occupational Therapy department at the University of Free State. She specialises in psychiatry and community based education. As a lecturer, Tsatsi trains occupational therapy students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level to become well rounded occupational therapists who are critical thinkers, cognizant of issues of diversity and contributors towards the health care system in South Africa. She also contributes immensely to research in her field and is at the forefront of curriculum development for occupational therapy courses.

Being interested in science from a young age, Tsatsi chose science based subjects in high school. Towards the end of high school she realised she needed a degree that would allow her to be creative and still scientific at the same time. After job shadowing occupational therapists in psychiatry, she applied to study a BSc Occupational Therapy at the University of Cape Town. Post-graduation, she completed her community service at Zebediela Hospital, a district hospital in rural Limpopo, where she was confronted with a variety of conditions, from neurological problems to learning disabilities to developmental delays. Her experience made her sceptical of specialising in mental health. However, during her third year of work at Thabamoopo Psychiatric Hospital, Tsatsi became severely frustrated with the injustices faced by mental health care users and decided to enrol for a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy with Stellenbosch University. Her research collaboratively engages long term mental health care users in trying to gain insight into their experience of living in Thabamoopo Hospital halfway house in its current functioning state. The collaborative nature of her research aims “to empower mental health service users with a voice to identify the challenges they experience,” the research findings will be used to enhance the services rendered to the residents by the halfway house.

Tsatsi decided to venture into academia after being intrigued by “research and the voice it gives to the marginalised” and in March this year, she was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Free State. Tsatsi managed to become an academic, one of her long term goals, before completing her Master’s degree and considers this to be one of the greatest milestones in her career thus far.

She loves her work because it, “echoes justice for the marginalised… allows [her] to be a voice for the voiceless and to facilitate health and wellbeing through everyday occupations that people often take for granted.” Tsatsi feels that as a person of colour and as a woman, in a field which is dominated by white females, she can to create change by being able to advocate for African consumers of the profession, “I’m able to alter a westernised profession in its roots and fit it to the African context.”

Tsatsi is also very optimistic about the future of STEM on the continent, “It is awakened to its potential and recognising that we are a force to be reckoned with. I think the number of women that have stepped into STEM in Africa is evidence that… Africa will be recognised as a land of opportunity… For the first time in history, Africa is raising responsible leaders who are cognisant of issues of injustice faced by all.”

She maintains a balanced lifestyle by playing as hard as she works, “I do activities that keep me on my path. My spirituality is at the core of my wellbeing and I keep in tune with that every day. I do things that make me happy. I eat and travel a lot.”

Let Itumeleng Tsatsi and her warm and gentle approach to the marginalized “occupy” some space in your heart as you enjoy the interview of this compassionate occupational therapist and determined Geeky Girl.

1. Describe what your work entails.

Occupational therapists (OTs) are Health Professionals that use the science of occupation as things that people do every day to facilitate health and wellbeing. OTs work with people across all ages, regardless of disability status; from the infant with developmental delays or the scholar with learning disabilities or experiencing barriers to learning to the adult with neurological conditions such as stroke or admitted to hospital with depression to communities that need development and capacity building or the CEO who just had a car accident, now disabled and needing to return to work. Occupational therapists in psychiatry specialise in mental health and work with individuals or groups who have been admitted to hospital due to mental illness for management of their mental illness symptoms through medication and rehabilitation so that they can recover and return back into their communities and resume their life roles.

Occupational Therapy (OT) in mental health constitutes Forensic OT, where OTs are involved in assessing functioning of an individual and together with the multi-disciplinary team (other health professionals like doctors and psychologists) decide whether a person was mentally ill at the time of committing the convicted crime. Geriatric OT, where old people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, among others are stimulated through activities of daily living to keep them in touch with reality and maintain their level of functioning. Acute OT, where OTs work with new admissions to the hospital due to bipolar mood disorder, schizophrenia, substance induced psychosis, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders, among many other mental illnesses are rehabilitated with the aim of returning them back to work and communities. This may at times include exploring healthier occupations to that which led to their admission in the first place (an example of this is a young adult/ teenager who was abusing substances, which induced psychosis and needs treatment and rehabilitation to return back to school or work. An OT, together with the client will need to explore an alternative healthier occupation like cycling or excising to replace the heavy smoking or drinking. These occupations need to be client centered and meaningful to the client. Among other things, to ensure that the client does not relapse and return to the hospital, OTs includes other important aspects of life such as life skills, stress management and social skills, among others).

One of the most important aspects of anyone’s life is work, as this is powerful in shaping one’s identity. Occupational Therapists are at the core of rehabilitation in ensuring a successful return to work and resuming one’s life roles post discharge from hospital. This often involves other stake holders like the employer, colleagues and family members. With consent from the client, the OT prepares the client’s return to work prior to their discharge by ensuring that the work environment is accommodative of their mental deficits and where necessary, adjustments be made to ensure a smooth and successful transition back into the work space. Reasonable accommodation may be made, such as the client working half days or accommodating early lunch to allow the client to take their medication on time, among others. Lastly, OTs facilitates vocational rehabilitation programmes for long term mental health care users who need to engage in work as part of rehabilitation while admitted at the hospital. This helps in acquiring skills needed for the open labour market, should they need to apply for work while on their leave of absence.

Patients with mental illness need occupational therapy because an admission to hospital due to ill health is a disruption to participation in daily occupations of work, leisure, play and self-care. The ability to engage in these meaningful occupations that are often taken for granted is what contributes to our health and wellbeing. Occupational therapists use these occupations to manage symptoms by bringing familiar occupations to the individual during their hospital admission so that when they are discharged from hospital, they do not struggle with participating in these occupations and become contributing members of their societies.

My current job as a lecturer in Occupational Therapy entails training occupational therapy students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level to become well rounded occupational therapists who are critical thinkers, cognizant of issues of diversity and contributors towards the health care system in South Africa. I specialise in psychiatry and community based education.

2. Describe your STEM journey.

My STEM journey started in high school, where I made the decision to study science based subjects with the hope of studying engineering in future. It wasn’t, until end of high school when I realised that engineering was not for me. I was creative and needed a degree that allows one to be creative and still scientific at the same time. I encountered BSc Occupational Therapy in a UCT prospectus and decided to shadow an occupational therapists in psychiatry at the time. I was intrigued by the intricacies of her job and how she helped make other people’s lives meaningful. Occupational Therapy is the perfect combination of science and creativity. I applied for the degree at the University of Cape Town and pursued this career in 2010. Post-graduation in 2013, I was employed for my community service at Zebediela Hospital. A district hospital in rural Limpopo, where I was exposed to adult neurological conditions, children with learning disabilities, functional assessments for disability grants and children with developmental delays, among others. It was a year of learning and at the end of it, one thing I was still certain about was that I did not want to specialize in mental health. After my community service year, I was forced, together with other colleagues, into Thabamoopo Psychiatric Hospital. In my third year of experience in the field, out of frustration of the injustices faced by mental health care users, I decided to enrol for a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy with Stellenbosch University.

My research works collaboratively with long term mental health care users in trying to gain insight into their experience of living in Thabamoopo Hospital halfway house in its current functioning state. I aim use the research findings towards enhancing the services rendered by the halfway house to improve the lives of its residents. This research is collaborative in nature to empower mental health service users with a voice to identify the challenges they experience by residing in an institutionalized setting and how that contributes towards their experience of justice/injustice. The rationale for this research is to achieve community reintegration of mental health service users and provide supportive environments that enable them to become contributing members of their societies.

This study was in response to challenges in practice. Unlike other halfway houses, Residents of the halfway house at Thabamoopo hospital are not permitted to leave the hospital premises in pursuit of work or be reintegrated with the community. By identifying how this affects the residents’ future plans, dreams and aspirations, the results of this study can contribute towards improving the halfway house to be able to address the needs of its residents.

Beginning of 2018, I was intrigued by research and the voice it gives to the marginalised and aimed to venture into academia. It was in March 2018 that I was appointed as a lecturer in Psychiatry and Community Based Education by the department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Free State.

3. What excites you about your job? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?

What excites me about my job is the difference it makes in people’s lives. The young and the old, the marginalized and the privileged, disabled or abled. My job echoes justice for the marginalised. It seeks to allow people to engage in occupations of their choice without experiencing environmental barriers. My job allows me to be a voice for the voiceless and to facilitate health and wellbeing through everyday occupations that people often take for granted. It allows me to contribute to research, to be at the forefront of curriculum development and to train students who one day, will be agents of change in our country and across the globe.

4. How would you describe your experience as a woman in the STEM space?

Occupational Therapy as a profession is a predominantly white female dominated field. Being an occupational therapist, who is black and a woman allows me to advocate for black consumers of the profession. It means I can understand black injustices and address them as a fellow black who is cognisant of such issues. Often, people misunderstand clients’ contexts, which is a great predictor of one’s treatment and the success thereof. As a black South African female, I’m able to alter a westernised profession in its roots and fit it to the African context.

5. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field?

Go for it! It takes a bit more dedication and intention to succeed in the arena, but the significance of STEM in the lives of people, systems and the society is worth it. Set your goals and work towards them. Be diligent, be consistent. Nothing comes easy.

6. As a STEM woman in Africa, how do you foresee the growth and progress of STEM on the continent? Is Africa a “land of opportunity”?

Definitely, Africa is now realising its potential and vast contribution it has made towards the rest of the world. It is awakened to its potential and recognising that we are a force to be reckoned with. I think the number of women that have stepped into STEM in Africa is evidence that in the next decade or so, Africa will be recognised as a land of opportunity and a mine field that will not only feed the rest of the world, but one that is dug and benefits every African, in the most just and fair way. For the first time in history, Africa is raising responsible leaders who are cognisant of issues of injustice faced by all.

7. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career?

By far, one of the greatest milestone in my career is achieving one of my long term goals of being an Academic before completing my Master’s degree as I thought it would happen. A latest recognition in the Mail and Guardian 200 young South African’s is also one milestone that was only but a dream. It reinforced that my contribution towards mental health in South Africa is valid and recognised.

8. How do you maintain a work-life balance?

I play as hard as I work. I do activities that keep me on my path. My spirituality is at the core of my wellbeing and I keep in tune with that every day. I do things that make me happy. I eat and travel a lot.

9. Who is your role model? Who inspires you?

I look up to a lot of people for different things. I’m currently inspired by STEM women in Academia who are making waves and breaking glass ceilings. I look up to the likes of Elelwani Ramugondo, Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi and Mamokgethi Phakeng, black women in academia, whose lives affirm that our dreams as black children are valid.

10. Where can more information or insight into your work be found?

My latest feature in 200 young South Africans can be found on http://ysa.mg.co.za/2018/itumeleng-tsatsi/ 
My twitter handle is @TumiTsatsi 
LinkedIn: Itumeleng Tsatsi

Itumeleng Tsatsi interviewed by Dhruti Dheda

Dhruti Dheda is a Chemical Engineer with a strong interest in media and communication. She is the editor of the Engineers without Borders South Africa Newsletter and the Community Manager – South Africa and Regional Outreach for Geeky Girl Reality. If you wish to collaborate or network, contact her at dhruti@geekyreality.com or find her on twitter @dhrutidd