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A new approach to mental health in nursing

1 November 2020

Hands with stethoscope

With mental health needs rising sharply and services already stretched, the University of Waikato is responding to the challenge with the launch of the new Bachelor of Nursing in 2021, integrating a focus on mental health and addictions throughout the three-year degree.

The programme was developed following the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction in 2018, entitled He Ara Oranga, which made a series of recommendations about improving mental health and addiction care in New Zealand.  These included broadening the range of services, greater responsiveness in primary care, and collaboration between government sectors. These imperatives have taken on added urgency in the wake of Covid-19.

Leading the development of the mental health focus of the new Waikato nursing programme is Tony O’Brien, a leading expert in mental health nursing who earlier this year was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to mental health nursing.

Over the course of his 46-year career, Tony has worked as a clinical practitioner, lecturer, researcher, and as an expert advisor to the New Zealand Police where he helped shape guidelines to assist frontline officers respond to mental health emergencies.

His research has also led to key changes in the way registered nurses treat mental health patients under the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992.

Thanks in large part to Tony’s contribution, the new University of Waikato Nursing degree will be a significant departure from traditional approaches favoured by other providers.  Put simply, the Waikato programme recognises the need to take a more holistic view of a person and their life when providing nursing services.

Tony says a one-size-fits-all model for mental health simply doesn’t work, especially for remote, rural communities, where services do not always reach those who need support the most. “It is important that services are culturally safe and focussed on the needs of the population. This was echoed in the recently released ‘Zero Suicide Aotearoa’ report, which highlighted the need for tailored responses to suicide.”

“At the University of Waikato, we’ll be teaching mental health as an integral part of health and therefore as an integral part of nursing. This is the big message we have taken from He Ara Oranga. We will also be employing an equity lens to ensure that nurses are equipped to address inequalities in health outcomes.”

“University of Waikato nursing students will also graduate with an unparalleled amount of practical experience under their belts - 700 more clinical hours than the 1100 hours minimum required by the Nursing Council of New Zealand and 500 more hours than other providers,” says Tony. Additional hours will allow students to spend more time in clinical practice, particularly in primary care settings where there is the greatest opportunity to make a difference to the health of the population.

“We know there are some really concerning issues that require a more nuanced and strengths-based approach, like the high Māori suicide rate and high use of compulsory treatment for Māori under the Mental Health Act.”

“We also know people with mental illness experience worse physical health than those who don’t in almost every area. We have to do something different and changing the way we teach and prepare our healthcare providers of the future is a critical step in the right direction.”

“We’re really proud of the programme we’ve developed here at Waikato. We aim to graduate nurses with a high level of clinical skills who are knowledgeable about equity in health, and prepared to practice in a wide range of clinical settings.”

For more information about research at the University of Waikato visit our Research page.

Or read more about the Bachelor of Nursing.


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