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Shining a light: why we're profiling mental health and addiction support workers

Recently Te Pou and Platform Trust have partnered together to provide leadership around supporting and growing the NGO workforce. Part of that work has been to shine a light on the role mental health and addiction support workers play and the work they do in their communities.

Support workers make up the largest part of the mental health and addiction workforce in New Zealand, but very few, including those in Government and the Ministry of Health, have a clear idea of exactly what they do.

We think this needs to change because these workers play a vital role in the recovery and wellbeing of the people we support. They see people in their own homes; support people with employment or social services and are right alongside people during the some of the hardest times of their lives.

Peer support workers have their own lived experience of mental health and addiction issues and recovery, and are able to step into the shoes of people who are experiencing mental health and addiction problems. They have really unique, personal and valuable insights into what it takes to support people towards recovery and the life they aspire to.

What support workers do can be wide-ranging and varied. Some of it is quite specialised and niche, but all of it requires empathy and highly developed skills. How do you support people to make the changes they want to make but are struggling with? How do you support people to think about things in a different way while encouraging resilience and wellbeing? The work goes way beyond health care, is holistic in nature, and can create remarkable and positive changes. So far, however, we may have been taking a lot of the amazing work support workers do for granted.

Te Pou and Platform want everyone in the workforce to be practising to their maximum ability in whatever area they work. We believe that to accomplish this we all need to understand who we’re working with and the qualifications, skills and experience our colleagues have.

These profiles could help clinicians and support workers better understand how they can work together as a team, virtually and in the same area, and create better understandings of how to address gaps we know exist when someone transitions from specialist mental health services to community services, or vice versa.

We also hope these profiles will help inspire people who may not yet have thought about entering the support workforce. When people read them we want them to ask themselves whether this is something they could do. We’ve done a lot of work over many years to increase career pathways and create opportunities to upskill support workers. Setting a minimum standard of a level 4 qualification was a start, but there are now options to do qualifications at level 6, 7 or 8. This enables a whole career progression within the NGO sector. We’re also working in the vital area of pay equity to help ensure workers in this exciting and highly skilled area receive the remuneration they so clearly deserve.

We hope, too, that these profiles will encourage younger people to come and work in a field that requires a strong focus on positive values and attitudes in making a difference in people’s lives – and also those who work part-time but have much to offer in terms of resilience and life experience. Have support workers supported you when you have experienced mental health and addiction challenges? Perhaps these profiles will inspire you into a rewarding career where you can use your hard won knowledge and experiences to support people going through tough times.

It is clear we will need more support workers as we head into the future.

A significant part of the mental health and addiction workforce sits in secondary specialist services, but there is no reason why we couldn’t have more clinicians working together with support workers in our NGOs. This would enable people to have more access to specialist, clinical and support services that are located closer to home. People wouldn’t have to travel great distances or jump through a whole lot of hoops to get the right treatments and support.

This is what the Government’s Health Strategy talks about. We’d like to see more support workers working alongside other practitioners, in primary care and at emergency departments, for example. We’d also like to see peer support workers working alongside agencies such as the Police who could really benefit from their skills and experience.

We’re really grateful to those who have volunteered to be profiled so far and who have so ably demonstrated what an important, rewarding, diverse and exciting field it is in which to work. You’re an inspiration! And look out for further profiles – we will be adding these over time.

Robyn Shearer, Chief Executive, Te Pou

Marion Blake MNZM, Chief Executive, Platform Trust

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