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Helen Patea on the importance of Pacific leadership

Published Thursday 20 Apr 2023

"I’ve been working at the Rangatahi Unit for 17 years, and there has never been a day that I haven’t wanted to come to work."

Tell us about your role.

I'm Team Leader of the Rangatahi Unit, a regional inpatient service for youth aged 12-17 who are experiencing acute mental health problems.

I lead a fantastic team of around 40, including medical, nursing, and allied health staff, and mental health support workers. We have two kaumatua on the team, to help us provide a bicultural service based on Kaupapa Māori frameworks as well as mainstream clinical models. We draw on casual pool and agency staff too.

I love my team - we call ourselves the Rangatahi whānau. We experience pretty low turnover, and have staff from a range of cultural backgrounds, some of whom have been here nearly as long as I have. I want to help them realise their potential and move forward.

Initially I never wanted to work in mental health or with teenagers, but was won over by the need. I love working with the kids, they keep you young.

What was your path to this role?

I was doing general nursing after I graduated Massey University, but wanted more contact with people and their families. So I started working at the Central Region Eating Disorder Service and realised I wanted to do more in mental health.

I've been working at the Rangatahi Unit for 17 years, starting as a NESP, and there has never been a day that I haven't wanted to come to work.

I've always been driven to progress, and since then I've been the first Pacific nurse in MHAIDS to achieve Expert level (in the Professional Development and Recognition Programme). In June 2022, while working as a CNS, I began acting in the Team Leader role, and have been full-time in the role since December last year.

What's the best part of your job?

The best part of my job is seeing the kids get well. I like to see their progression. They can come in struggling, and then down the line they're saying "Good morning Miss, would you like a cup of coffee?" They also call us by our names when they're well, which is a great sign of recovery.

We always have a welcoming when someone comes onto the unit, and a poroporoaki when they leave, when the kids and staff get to say something nice about the person who's leaving. You get a bit teary-eyed! It's a big responsibility – we are moulding them in their recovery to move out and be independent. 

Why is it important to have more Pacific people in leadership roles?

I'm aware as a Pacific leader that I have a responsibility. I am able to offer support to develop and progress to my team, and to Pacific staff across the service – I am able to be the person I wish I had had, back in my day.

I'm conscious of what my role means to other people – when I got the CNS and later the Team Leader roles, I had many Pacific people who I didn't know come up to me and say "Thank God – we've got somebody in leadership." So having Pacific leaders at ELT/SLT level has been a really important change.

There are so many Pacific nurses and support workers who have been in the same jobs for years, with just as much knowledge as me without moving up. That's a challenge for me and for leadership – why is this?

What's your vision for the future of the Pacific Mental Health and Addiction workforce?

I was born and brought up in New Zealand – but Samoa is my home country, I always had access to my culture and I speak the language. But at work, I used to park my culture at the door because I worked in a pākehā-dominant world. I wasn't my true person.

It wasn't till I began working in mental health – talking to the kids about accepting the good and the bad, embracing cultural and family backgrounds – I realised was only being half of myself. When I went to Samoa to give mental health support as part of a 2019 flu vaccination programme, my eyes were opened and my passion ignited to do more for Pacific people.

I'm now in a role where I can do good – and that's what I want to do. If anyone needs support, my door is always open.