A career studying human behaviour

Janet Peters’ childhood wasn’t easy – her family life was complicated and Janet had a long-standing history of complex trauma.

21 Jul 2021

She had some “drugs and rock and roll” years before realising that she wanted to learn about and understand human behaviour. At 25, she enrolled at the University of Waikato to study psychology.

“I had a history of anxiety, and I was anxious coming to university, I had panic attacks when I started, but I loved uni from the beginning. I’d returned from living in Auckland, my parents were around the corner. I had an amazing flat and flat mates on Cambridge Road in Hillcrest. I gained confidence and I worked hard.”

Janet graduated with a Masters in Psychology; her masters research focused on psychological approaches to chronic pain. The links between mental and physical remain a strong focus of Janet’s research.

“I knew early on that I was too anxious to be a clinical psychologist, and I found myself drawn to the public health system. When I started work people didn’t see mental health as a public health issue at all and I was part of a steering group formed to change that.”

Janet had worked for a DHB for 10 years when she took up a year-long contract to establish what was to become a powerful campaign to create public awareness of mental health issues – Like Minds Like Mine. She became its first national manager. “I still believe it was the first and best of its type in the world at that time,” she says.

Initially they used profiles of famous people with mental health problems on the campaign, like Einstein and Van Gogh to inform and educate the public and remove some of the stigma associated with mental illness, and over the years it’s been refined to have more of a New Zealand focus using local people, and more recently it has taken on a stronger Māori focus.

“That campaign showed the power of the media when it’s directed properly with the right people and clear information,” Janet says.

She used her experience with Like Minds to influence the National Depression Initiative, giving support and guidance to people being used in television ads and other media, and by providing advice on the content. She says getting former All Black John Kirwan on board made a huge difference, and still does.

But more and more Janet has turned her focus on the impact of serious childhood trauma and the effects that has on the brain and physical health. “We know the first 1000 days of a child’s life is critical. In addition, we know that if a child has a traumatic event, the effects can be lifelong.”

That trauma may include abuse, neglect, exposure to substance abuse and addiction. “Mental health and addictions have a strange relationship often going hand in hand and I’ve long believed we need a closer look at that relationship and give more focus to addiction,” Janet says.

For the past 16 years Janet has been a part-time staff member of the nine-country International Initiative for Mental Health Leadership (IIMHL), a collaborative that focuses on improving mental health, addictions and disability services. It involves leaders working in the mental health sector from Australia, England, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, USA and Sweden. Leaders can be people with experience of mental distress or addiction, clinicians, whānau members, policy and government leaders, cultural and indigenous leaders.

Before Covid they would have annual exchanges in person, sharing information, innovations and tackling common or specific issues. Lately they’ve been zooming, but next year they are planning an international exchange across New Zealand and Australia, ending with a meeting  in Christchurch.

Janet’s contribution to the mental health sector has been acknowledged as an advisor, writer and researcher. In 2012 she received the New Zealand Psychological Society’s Public Interest Award: for valuable contributions to psychology in the service of the public, and in 2015 she was awarded the Australasian “Exceptional Contribution Award” for her outstanding contribution to mental health service delivery and acknowledging a remarkable accomplishment in the unfolding story of mental health service delivery in Australia and New Zealand. This year she was named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

“I love psychology,” she says. “And every young person I meet I encourage them to study it. It’s so interesting. I am all about people, and I still make a point of staying curious and thinking of the common good.”

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