Erin Palmer-Wilkins

Erin Palmer-Wilkins and her colleagues discovered fresh ways of engaging with clients when decorating Te Rawhiti Community Mental Health Centre for Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW).

“We celebrate MHAW every year,” Erin says. “This time the theme was ‘connect with nature for good mental health and wellbeing’. We have limited outdoor space, so we decided the best way for everyone to connect with nature was to bring it indoors.”

Staff were initially keen to turn the whole reception area into a forest, but thought it might be too ambitious, so settled on building one tree.

“We were lucky to have a staff member who was a set designer in a previous life,” Erin says. “He got cracking building the tree ‘in situ’ in reception, so we could all watch it developing.”

Group effort leads to unique tree

Erin says that the project became a real group effort. Receptionist Kate and the centre manager, Anna Marie, oversaw things and persuaded more than 30 staff and anyone else they could into doing bits and pieces.

Creating the tree took about three days and lots of chicken wire and papier-mache. Clients coming into the unit were very interested and keen to be involved, so they got cracking making leaves, bugs and finding other wildlife to go on the tree. 

“The tree ended up being clothed in many different species of leaves, as well as a bird’s nest found at a local beach, a possum’s tail, and a macramé owl,” Erin says. “One client loves butterflies, so she was very busy creating them for us.”

Changing the atmosphere and the conversations

Ruth, Te Rawhiti’s consumer engagement advisor for mental health, noticed people were in awe of the tree and the atmosphere created by the various decorations.

 “A couple of people remarked how they felt different the minute they walked in,” she says.

“To add to the atmosphere we played recordings of New Zealand birds and – apart from the odd squawking seagull – this helped to create a feeling of peace in reception.” 

Other activities were organised as part of October's week-long celebration too:

  • A beach clean up at Cockle Bay, Auckland
  • A sausage sizzle outside the unit (organised by their students). Free sausages and information about connecting with nature was given to passers by
  • Mindful movement sessions at the beach
  • A competition asking clients to comment on how connecting with nature benefits their physical and mental health. All the competition entries were written on paper leaves and displayed in the waiting room to inspire others to connect with nature. 

Ongoing benefits for clients and staff

Erin says there have been unexpected spin-offs from their MHAW project.

“The clinician, who hosted the mindful movement activity at the beach, said it was good to see clients relax and connect with each other outside of their comfort zone. She’s looking at keeping mindful movement as a regular activity and head out to the beach more often.” 

The competition revealed how important it is for clients to connect with nature. One person wrote:

“Being around nature helps me realise that everything is so much bigger than me, that my problems and worries are just a small blip on what will exist long after me. The fact that [nature] has no worries, no cares, and just ‘is’ makes me feel more at peace with myself.  Maybe I need to stop worrying and just ‘be’.”

And a few people said it would be great it if was like this all year round, so Te Rawhiti staff are intending to keep the tree up for a while.

“We turned it into a Diwali [light] tree in late October, and have some ideas about perhaps recreating it as a Christmas tree for the end of the year!” Erin says.

Read about Mental Health Awareness Week