Sasha Toia (Ngāpuhi) is a casual community support worker for Arataki Ministries Ltd in Northland. ‘Arataki’ is a charitable Trust providing recovery services to people who experience mental health and addiction problems and offers support with living skills in the Whangarei and Kaipara districts.
One of her tasks is supporting people in their own homes with goal setting, managing money and negotiating the health system. She also supports people living in Arataki’s residential facilities to regain the skills they need to live independently and to reconnect with their communities.
“What I love about Arataki is the philosophy of care across all the services,” she says.
“We believe all people are of equal value. It doesn’t matter what challenges people are facing. Everybody benefits from great relationships, so we try to build hope for a person’s future and that’s really fundamental to their recovery.”
Arataki’s view is that each person’s journey is absolutely unique, so its philosophy is to work with a person in a way that fits their individual needs to achieve a life that is meaningful to them.
Sasha came to be in the role through her own mental health journey.
“I really led a fantastic life,” she says. She was living in England with her then husband. They both had good jobs in television and travelled the world.
“But I began to get sick and I didn’t know then that I had schizophrenia. I knew something was wrong because I had everything but I was so, so sad. There was really no explanation for it, but I just sort of felt myself slipping away.”
In 2000 she and her husband came back to New Zealand and she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was another 10 years before she was re-diagnosed as experiencing schizophrenia. This meant that the medication she had been on had not been targeted correctly for all that time. She feels disappointed in her experience of the mental health system and felt completely unsupported.
Sasha’s life started to unravel, her marriage ended and she got in trouble with the law. She became, in her own words, “deeply suicidal” and ended up in the mental health unit, Tumanako, in Whangarei. Eventually she got a residential placing at Arataki.
“As I began to recover I realised I had quite a bit to contribute and that maybe I could be of help to others. I was going to work in this area and I was going to give 100 percent.”
Sasha became a regional coordinator with the Like Minds Like Mine programme. When that ended, a position as a casual support worker within Arataki Ministries came up.
“I wanted all the people I worked with to get everything I had now. I didn’t want anyone to go through what I had gone through- the misdiagnosis and people who didn’t understand. I’ve lived what it’s like to lose absolutely everything, and to think you’re of no value at all.”
She believes her role as a support worker is so much more than just a job because it involves working within people’s lives. “People experience such difficult times and can feel like they are broken and valueless. My role is to support people to become everything they want to be. I have done a lot with my life, but what I needed was love and Arataki gave me that.”
Like many support workers Sasha’s role with people is really varied. Supporting people to set and achieve goals they identify and aspire to is a central component towards recovery, resilience and wellbeing. Sometimes part of her role can include supporting people with day to day activities like shopping, becoming part of the community and or getting through situations they find difficult.
“Some people are afraid of big crowds so shopping is a challenge. Many don’t know how to budget to get the most out of the small benefit they receive. So there’s a lot involved. Some have trouble planning for the next few days or weeks let alone the next few years. So it’s a matter of walking them through that journey so their goals become clear and achievable.”
Sasha loves her work.
“What excites me is when a person comes to you they’ve been through so much. After you work with them, suddenly they’re off to polytech or they can go and get themselves a flat. They know how to cook a meal or they can budget and now there’s always food in the cupboard because you taught them how to. Their connections with their whānau are stronger. You see them blossoming like a flower and being everything they can be. I can’t explain the feeling it gives me.”
She also uses her own experience of mental health problems, using services, recovery and achieving wellbeing when she works with people.
“I let them know I experience schizophrenia because instantly that can be a connection.” People need to know that even if they are experiencing a mental health problem, there IS a future. Sasha says “If I can do it they can too.”
She feels “bloody proud” as a Māori person to be doing this because of the disproportionate number of Māori who experience mental health and addiction issues.
“I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved and I’m really hoping that I can be an inspiration to other Māori people wanting to work in the mental health field.”
She also believes there are challenges ahead.
Sasha believes that as a country we really need to put more resources into the mental health and addiction treatment sector. Sasha’s partner has a level 4 certificate in mental health and addiction but is finding it hard to find a job because they’re just not there.