On 12 March 2015 a celebration of 20 years of Whitireia Community Polytechnic’s New Entry to Specialist Practice (NESP) – mental health and addiction nursing programme was held at the Ratonga-Rua-O-Porirua campus in Porirua. It was attended by some of the founders of the programme, members of the first graduating class, current students and many other stakeholders.

The celebration was chaired by Toni Dal Din, director of nursing, Mental Health, Addictions and Intellectual Disability Directorate (MHAID), Wairarapa, Hutt Valley and Capital & Coast District Health Boards (3DHB).

He acknowledged the courage and the foresight of those first programme leaders and the members of the first class of 1995, many of whom were present – as were a number of the current class of graduate students.

“I am proud and privileged to be here today to acknowledge something that has led not only Wellington, but New Zealand,” he said.

The first speakers were Capital & Coast District Health Board interim chief executive officer Debbie Chin and Mental Health, Addictions and Intellectual Disability 3 DHB Directorate general manager Nigel Fairley. They spoke about the history of NESP.

“It’s fitting that we’re celebrating here,” said Nigel, “because Porirua Hospital has a 130-year history of delivering mental health care.”

Debbie said, “Today is about the most recent chapter in that long history and celebrating 20 years of innovative nursing practice to support new graduates.”

Together they spoke about nurse advisor for mental health Frances Hughes, Hutt Valley Health’s Carmel Haggerty, Whitireia Community Polytechnic’s Julia Hennessey and Victoria University’s Professor Jill White. These four developed the idea of an internship programme for psychiatric mental health nursing with 30 new graduates starting in February 1995. Since that time more than 740 graduate nurses have completed the programme and more than 150 places are funded each year.

The next speaker was new Whitireia & Weltec chief executive Chris Gosling. He said the NESP programme was a perfect example of polytechnics providing the work-ready and competent graduates required by employers.

“What’s happened here over the last 20 years – starting something to meet a need and refining it over time – is a fantastic achievement, and we should be shouting it out loud and proud. It’s a credit to those people who were involved from the beginning, that they really knew what vocational education was about.”

Two of the founders, Julia Hennessey and Carmel Haggerty, then spoke about the programme’s beginnings.

Julia said 20 years ago they knew they had an issue with how mental health nurses were being supported in their first year of practice, but they weren’t sure what to do.

“At first we ran a 12-week programme that Whitireia had developed, but it didn’t seem to be enough. We needed a one-year programme but we didn’t know what to base it on.

“At that time we were also in the process of joining with Australia to form the Australia New Zealand College of Mental Health Nurses and out of that came the Standards of Mental Health Nursing, and so these formed the basis of our one-year curriculum.”

She said that at first it was a real challenge placing the new nurses because nobody was exactly sure who they were. However, many of the charge nurses approached recognised there had been gaps in their own “hands on” training and this made them more willing to help out.

Carmel said she can remember thinking, as an enrolled nurse back in 1981, that things weren’t right and that it was time to start looking at doing things better.

She acknowledged all those who had been on the programme advisory committee and said it was the best functioning one her faculty had ever seen, and she thanked Te Pou for its current funding.

“It was the wonderful people around us who supported us and those graduates that were key to the success of the whole thing. It’s been an amazing collaboration, and the relationships we’ve built over time continue.”

Juliana Korzon is the current NESP programme co-ordinator and has been part of the team since 2007. She spoke about how many in the current workforce are ageing and will soon be retiring or starting to work part-time.

“So the reasons for starting the programme have been addressed, but now we have new reasons to continue it. The greying nursing staff and the greying population mean that transition to practice in a safe and supportive way remains an important strand of workforce development strategy.

“It’s a privilege to be involved with new nurses who are passionate and motivated, and want to be the best nurses they can be. And it’s a privilege to be in an environment where we are expected to have really high standards in contemporary mental health and addiction care. We are looking at a complete paradigm shift because we are now much more focused on humanity and we are much more informed about the consumer movement.”

Te Pou’s Fiona Hamilton oversees the Skills Matter programme which manages NESP funding. She shared her ‘bird’s eye view of NESP and said that, of the six programmes funded under Skills Matter, NESP was certainly the biggest, accounting for more than half of all funding.

“This reflects the numbers going through the programme. There were 140 in 2010, 153 by 2013 and 175 in 2015. It’s also the programme with the highest profile, with a significant level of interest from its many stakeholders. These include the Ministry of Health, Health Workforce NZ, the mental health and addiction workforce development centres, the Nursing Council, employers, professional nursing bodies, tertiary education providers and the nurses themselves.

“And then there are all those involved in delivering the programme: preceptors, supervisors and nurse educators. And of course the most important stakeholders of all are the service users and their families.

“NESP is both clinical and educational, and that’s important. The clinical aspect is essential to translating the theoretical into practice and it’s critical that the academic side aligns with service need.”

Fiona said NESP nurses are surveyed every year, and many write about the struggle with work-life-study balance. But the outcomes they report are valuable and include increased confidence, increased insights, and better knowledge, skills and understanding.

“Last year we invited American mental health nursing leader and academic Gail Stuart to review the Skills Matter programme, of which NESP is a part. Gail interviewed a number of stakeholders and her report concluded that the NESP Nursing programme is both valuable and valued. Some of the strongest voices coming through were from consumer advisors and the service user leader focus group.

“They felt NESP had helped provide a more stable and consistently trained nursing workforce. They spoke of having the right to care from nurses who are adequately trained, competent, responsive, and with a developed understanding of the recovery model. They also said NESP nurses had played an important role in continuing to change attitudes and values within services.”

Find out more about Whitireia's postgraduate nursing programmes.