Staff Profile

Meet Abigail Milnes, Whāraurau director

09 June 2022
Updated October 2022

Abigail Milnes is the director of Whāraurau, a UniServices business unit empowering the mental health workforce in its engagement with young people.

What would you like people to know about the team at Whāraurau?

The role of Whāraurau is to develop the workforce of the mental health and addiction sector to continuously improve its engagement with young people and their whānau. We support the people who work with our tamariki and taiohi (children and youth) to improve their mental health and well-being. 

We are contracted by the ministries of Health and Education to provide workforce development in best practice approaches to mental health and well-being and support in systems and service improvement. This involves working with providers on strategies for managing the gap between demand and capacity, which is an ongoing challenge. The team brings a broad skillset including backgrounds in clinical training, Te Ao Māori, Pacific approaches, project management and policy development.

We are all passionate about improving outcomes for tamariki and whānau and supporting the evolution of the frontline of mental health, which historically has been defined by Western clinical approaches. Over time we have worked hard to include Te Ao Māori and Pacific understandings of well-being and human development. Pre-colonisation or early Māori approaches to raising children had a strong focus on relationships and connection and are very consistent with science-based best practice in neurodevelopment.

Who are your stakeholders and how do you work with them?

Whāraurau is a business unit of UniServices, so I engage with its leadership to ensure our programme is meeting key deliverables. Another important stakeholder is the Ministry of Health and this connection involves working within the parameters of, and remaining responsive to, current government strategy. We also work closely with our other partner workforce centres, particularly Te Rau Ora, Le Va and Te Pou, which are the Māori, Pacific and adult mental health workforce development centres. We align our training and resource efforts with these partners wherever crossover exists to avoid unnecessary duplication.

In the past, Whāraurau focused its support mainly on clinically based services but more recently we have adapted and continue to develop our training and resources to be accessible to a broader range of professionals supporting our young people. Our mental health workforce now includes community workers, social workers, teachers and people with lived experience of mental health challenges. Whānau members also have a vital role supporting young people with their mental health and we are at the beginning of a journey towards making some of our training more accessible for them. Whāraurau is also developing leadership training for youth peer workers with a lived experience of mental health challenges to enable them to harness their experience to help other young people in a way they can relate to.

What motivates you to do what you do?

Enjoying life and making the most of it requires finding balance and being healthy. What that looks like depends entirely on the individual and I am driven to help people on that journey. Equity for people in Aotearoa is the cornerstone of Whāraurau and, for me, part of achieving equity is realising that some people need lifting up more than others. Making training and resources more accessible to practitioners working with youth and whānau helps build better support systems. An aspect that really resonates with me is encompassing the Te Ao Māori perspective in our training. It’s a more holistic approach to mental well-being that goes beyond the brain to include physical health, connection to others, the environment and spiritual well-being. This is common in many ancient human traditions for a reason.

How did you get into this role?

I came to Whāraurau from the Ministry of Health where I’d worked for six years in policy and workforce development. Working in the health sector aligned with my educational background in law, health science and business administration. My journey with Whāraurau began seven years ago and I was a senior project manager by the time I took up the acting director role in September last year. In the step-up to this role, the added operational visibility of the ‘machinery of the business unit’ has been a key difference and includes a level of financial oversight I had not previously had direct involvement with. Supporting the team and maintaining our team culture is also a big part of what I do – our purpose, direction and the way we deliver our work is always a collective effort.

What do you do for fun?

I like activities that support a healthy body and mind. For me this means food – eating and cooking, playing with my daughter, swimming, running or workouts that get my cardio fitness up. I also practice yoga and meditation, and then of course there’s reading and Netflix.