On day one, Wednesday 6 November, Jono Hartland of the Mental Health Foundation New Zealand ran a session titled ‘Working with members in crisis and promoting well-being’. The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand is a charity that works towards creating a society free from discrimination, where all people enjoy positive mental health & wellbeing, and the session encouraged those in attendance to reflect on our current understanding of mental health and wellbeing, and the positive changes we in the tertiary education sector can make to support our colleagues and students through difficult times.

The Mental Health Foundation works to influence individuals, whānau, organisations and communities to improve and sustain their mental health and reach their full potential. The session was a timely reminder for BPs and sector leaders of the issues facing both staff and students in the sector and across Aotearoa and encouraged important conversations and understanding around how those of us working and studying in tertiary education can promote wellbeing and reduce the stigma of issues related to mental health.

For Miriama Postlethwaite, Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi Branch President, the session provided an opportunity to reflect on our current understanding of mental health and wellbeing. According to Postlethwaite,

‘Dealing with mental health and the discrimination experienced by those negatively affected is an age-old issue, and one that has not been adequately addressed in the tertiary education sector. I’m not quite sure the sector currently knows how to deal with it. If you have a medical problem, you may be able to see it, perhaps it can be dealt with, people may need time off to heal. People can understand that. But mental health is different, it’s not always apparent, and unfortunately valued staff and students are leaving the sector as a result of this misunderstanding and lack of awareness’.

The sessions encouraged BPs to think about ways TEU members can contribute to and help foster positive wellbeing, safer workplaces, and greater understanding of issues related to mental health in our everyday lives.

According to Postlethwaite it is crucial that we are open and honest about mental health, and that everyday conversations about mental health become normalised,

‘As a union we know the importance of supporting one another through times of uncertainty, but we shouldn’t wait until crisis hits. We are all people with our ups and downs, and mental health is an issue that affects us all at some point in our lives. It’s about looking after one another, but also making those conversations commonplace. Just as we may talk at work about eating well, or exercising, we need to also talk about keeping our minds well. It should be a conversation we can feel safe and confident having together’.

For Postlethwaite, Te Whare Tapu Wha, or the four cornerstones of Māori health in which wellbeing relies holistically on the strength of the four cornerstones taha tinana (physical health), taha wairua (spiritual health), taha whānau (family health), and taha hinengaro (mental health), provides a useful means of understanding the balance of wellbeing in the promotion of mental health.

Ultimately, it was widely agreed by BPs in attendance that there needs to be greater awareness and improvement of policies and guidance concerning mental health in tertiary education. While the current Government focus on wellbeing provides a timely opportunity to promote positive change, more must be done within the sector to remove the stigma of mental health and to ensure those negatively affected feel safe in being open about their wellbeing and are free from discrimination.