Lived experience leads to national platform and award recognition | Northland DHB

Lived experience leads to national platform and award recognition

Jason Haitana has a compelling story to share, and he’s not afraid to share it. 

As a very young boy, from the age of four to the age of 10, Jason was sexually and physically abused by whānau members. The experience of recovering from abuse to live the life he wanted to live is the basis for the work he now does as Consumer and Family Leader for Mental Health and Addiction Services at Northland DHB. 

“My story is not unique, nor is it unexpected,” says Jason. “My experiences left me unable to regulate my emotions in a healthy way, and I suffered from anxiety and depression. I didn’t know how to deal with life. I was suicidal and didn’t know how to have relationships. I started hearing voices and seeing things. Whānau tried to help but didn’t know where the help was that I needed. In 2002 I was admitted to North Shore Hospital. I spent the years following that trying to figure out how to have the life that I wanted and asking, “Why me?”. 

“I started to explore who I was and where I came from. I explored my whakapapa and who I belonged to. Without a doubt, being Māori gave me the strength to get through. I then found work as a peer support advisor, and that, in turn, led to my current role. 

“Now I am able to work with whānau and say to them, “I once was a boy like your boy”. It gives people hope. I love that four-year-old boy I used to be, and I keep him safe by acknowledging him. I’m all that’s left of him, so I honour him in my work.” 

Jason was recently honoured by being nominated by the National Association of Mental Health Service Consumer Advisors (NAMHSCA) – a group that he co-chairs – for the PWC New Zealand Lived Experience Leadership Award at the 2021 HeadFit Awards. This award category recognises an individual with lived experience of neurodiversity, mental illness, or mental distress who has demonstrated leadership by role modelling, reducing stigma, and driving positive mental health conversations. 

Jason was subsequently recognised as one of three national finalists in his category and said that speaking with fellow finalist Hannah Young from Parrallax and category winner Michelle Ortega from Fonterra was inspiring. “Hannah was amazing to talk to, and Michelle is young and vibrant and has been through a lot and has a dedication to helping others.” 

Reflecting on the experience of the awards process, Jason says that he was left with a real sense that the mental health conversation has well and truly moved away from the “harden up” approach of the past. 

“Businesses and organisations from a wide range of sectors were represented at the awards, all of whom genuinely seek solutions to mental health issues. I remember a time when you didn’t talk about these things, and the result of that was that people committed suicide.” 

Jason also says that while viewing the online award announcement (delayed and shifted online due to COVID-19), he was able to recognise and acknowledge just how far he has come from his early years growing up in Kaitaia and why it is so important to him to do his mahi in Te Tai Tokerau. 

“The work I do in Northland gives me the platform to go into the national space. But I can’t do that without being grounded in my work here. I believe you have to sort your own house out before you sort someone else’s out.  

“Being an award finalist has sharpened my sense of purpose. Working in mental health and addictions, we don’t get many pats on the back. So this award finalist recognition is for all of us with lived experience working in mental health. It’s an achievement founded on the group – the team and whānau who have put me there. 

“It shows that people with lived experience can achieve some huge milestones for themselves, as I have and continue to do. I’m no John Kirwan, I just want to plod along and be humble. But this award process has opened the door for some really wonderful people to share their experiences with people from other sectors, and that’s a really beautiful thing. Everybody owns mental health, and it’s not just the health sector.”


Photo: Jason Haitana

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