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From small beginnings, big things grow

On Thursday 1 July, an art celebration was held to celebrate the visual art, poetry and music created by tāngata whai ora for the Mental Health First Aid Aotearoa New Zealand (MHFA) programme.

Creative expressions, including art, poems and songs, from 12 tāngata whai ora were beautifully displayed at the Waikato DHB Manaaki Raatonga aa Iwi site on River Road in Hamilton. The poems and songs which were created had been recorded earlier at Manaaki Raatonga aa Iwi and were played to attendees during the exhibition.

Attendees included the artists (tāngata whai ora) and their whānau, along with staff from Waikato DHB, Hauora Waikato and Te Pou, who worked in partnership on this project.

The art that was displayed is the result of a request from Te Pou for tāngata whai ora artwork that reflects their experience of mental health challenges and recovery to use in the new MHFA manual, which is currently under development.

Feedback from the artists following the art celebration included:

“It was nice to have no division and feel equal to others from all walks of life.”
“People congratulated me – it was cool to be praised.”
“Amazed at the outcome when I commit myself.”
“It was calming for me to be around caring people.”
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In response, Waikato DHB and Hauora Waikato established an art therapy group that met weekly over several months to create visual art, poetry and songs for use in the programme.

“What developed is pieces of art, music, memoirs and stories of recovery in mental health and a joining of people working together to create a healing space while supporting each other to create.

I learnt so much and had my values challenged at times which is made me reflect on myself. This [art project] was one of the most amazing powerful moments in my career – a moment I will always remember.”

- Stacey Kaye, occupational therapist, Waikato DHB

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The collaboration was successful in more ways than anyone had envisioned. What began as a small one-off project resulted in some stunning creative expressions describing recovery in mental health while also contributing to the recovery of the participating tāngata whai ora.

“Our team noticed changes in guys’ attitudes and approaches to the things they are doing. Their keyworkers are noticing differences in all of them. I can see them all being able to be more open and yourselves at art group.”

- Hauora Waikato occupational therapist

The art therapy group was so impactful that it will continue in the future.

“I’m so grateful to have been part of this project and to have witnessed this group of people share their deeply moving stories through creative expression. I know how powerful hearing stories of lived experience can be for MHFA participants but I didn’t anticipate how the project would impact the people involved.”

- Sarah Christensen, Mental Health First Aid project lead, Te Pou

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The inclusion of creative expressions from tāngata whai ora that explore what it is like to experience mental health challenges and recovery is a powerful part of the MHFA programme.

It gives participants some insight into the reality of these experiences, which may be something they have no personal experience of. It also helps to reduce the stigma and discrimination that unfortunately can still be attached to people experiencing mental health challenges.

“I co-facilitated the art group at Manaaki Raatonga aa Iwi, and as a new graduate occupational therapist gained a lot of learning in terms of the power of therapeutic groups, and the beautiful way recovery can be portrayed through creative expression. The outcome was raw, intensely honest and boldly vulnerable accounts of different journeys.

It was a privilege to be involved in such an emotionally moving evening, where we could openly celebrate the individuals who shared their work, in a fully accepting and unapologetic way. This was a massive highlight of my year, and I am excited to see what the art group achieves next. I hope to continue to work in such a meaningful and authentic way – striving to empower tāngata whai ora, and building and supporting their strengths to flourish so they can live their best life.”

- Charisse Edwards, occupational therapist, Waikato DHB

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Te Pou would like to thank Waikato DHB, Hauora Waikato and most importantly the artists for their support and participation in this project. We will treasure the gift we have been given in these creative expressions.

The Mental Health First Aid programme is designed to educate people on mental health and mental health challenges and teach people how to provide initial support to adults who may be experiencing mental health challenges or who are in a mental health crisis. The support uses a practical evidence-based action plan that includes assisting, listening, and giving support and information until a crisis resolves, or specialist help is accessed.

For more information about Mental Health First Aid, visit

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