Motherhood, Migration and Methodology: Giving Voice to the “Other”

DeSouza, R. (2004). Motherhood, migration and methodology: Giving voice to the “other”. The Qualitative Report, 9(3), 463-482.

This paper discusses the need for multi-cultural methodologies that develop knowledge about the maternity experience of migrant women and that are attuned to women’s maternity-related requirements under multi-cultural conditions. Little is known about the transition to parenthood for mothers in a new country, particularly when the country is New Zealand. This paper will challenge the positivist hegemony of previously completed research on migrant women by reflecting on my own experience as a researcher grounded in a broadly–based, pluralistic set of critical epistemologies that allowed me to uncover the issues and contexts that impacted on the experience of migrant women. It concludes by proposing that, where research occurs with minority groups, multiple research strategies are incorporated in order to prevent the reproduction of deficiency discourses.


Migrant Populations

DeSouza, R. (2004). Working with refugees and migrants. In D. Wepa (Ed.), Cultural safety (pp. 122-133). Auckland: Pearson Education New Zealand.

The art of walking upright here

Is the art of using both feet.

One is for holding on.

One is for letting go. (Colquhoun, 1999, p.32)

Glenn Colquhoun’s poetry captures the challenge dislocation from home and family. The migrant or refugee has to somehow hold on to their legacy and their heritage whilst simultaneously letting go of those things that cannot be maintained in a new country. They must let go to create new lives, so they can stake a new claim of belonging; a new place to stand.

One in five New Zealanders was born overseas. This rises to one in three in Auckland. For many, migration is seen as a way of obtaining a better life, particular for ones children. Whilst many migrants make informed decisions, this needs to be seen as a continuum between full choice and no choice. This can been viewed as a ‘pull’ effect (migrants are drawn to a new country for the opportunities available) or a ‘push’ effect (the motivation is simply to leave where they are). Migrants can be defined as people who were born in one country and then move to another under an immigration programme. In New Zealand this consists of three main streams:

  •  Skilled/Business: Which relates to attracting migrants with qualifications and skills, or the potential to create business opportunities in New Zealand.
  • Family sponsored: Where New Zealand citizens or permanent residents can sponsor family members to the country.
  • Humanitarian: This includes refugees and allows for family members to be granted residence if there are serious humanitarian concerns.

Refugees that have resettled in New Zealand mostly originate from Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia and Eastern Europe. Refugees differ from voluntary migrants because they were forced to leave their home and have little if any choice in selecting their destination. They are at the extreme end of the ‘push’ effect, often having fled from situations of conflict and human right abuses. This has important implications for the provision of  health care, as they might not have had access to preventative and treatment services. Most refugees arriving in New Zealand will spend six weeks at the Mangere Refugee Reception Centre (MRRC) in South Auckland. There are estimated to be 20.6 million refugees and displaced people in need of protection and help (UNHCR, 2003). Currently New Zealand accepts a United Nations-mandated quota of 750 refugees per year, plus approximately the same number again of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are people seeking refugee status without legal documentation. They often experience depression, hopelessness and helplessness related to stress and socio-economic deprivation. Even where migration is an informed choice, the result can still be isolation and loss of financial independence. Before migration, one often only considers the positives; it can be difficult to understand the adjustment that is required and to come to terms with the losses of family, friends, culture and familiarity.

In this chapter I present a view of cultural safety and how it is relevant to health from the perspective of a migrant with a view to informing those who will be caring for the needs of migrants and refugees. I will briefly review the history and tensions around migration and migrants. Anecdotes from my clinical experience are woven through the text to present multiple layers to reflect the complexity of the experience and reflective questions are posed to increase self-awareness. I conclude by offering a range of strategies for working with diversity.

Improving collaboration between nursing professionals and support workers in the New Zealand mental health system– A position paper

In 1998 I began teaching the first mental health support work cohorts in New Zealand at Unitec Institute of Technology. I had the privilege of working with Maori and Pacific mental health workers, peer support workers and consumer providers until 2005. I wrote this position paper for the Australian and New Zealand College of Mental Health Nurses way back in 2003. I have taken it out of the vault in case it is of use. I have listed more up to date references at the end of the document for those who might want to do some further reading.


The Mental Health Commission (1997) states that mental health is the concern of all. Support workers are a reality of today’s mental health system in New Zealand and this paper looks at their relationship with community mental health nurses. This paper is a response to the major changes in mental health care in New Zealand over the last decade, which have dramatically altered the landscape of the mental health workforce. It seems timely to look at a way forward and to develop guidelines for nurses working with support workers in the community. In this paper “support workers” include community support workers and consumers as providers and the term “nurses” refers to community mental health nurses.

No one group can meet the needs of consumers. Together these two groups can provide complimentary services to improve client care but a model of cooperation is necessary and further clarification of roles and overlap is required. Effective teamwork between nurses and support workers in the mental health community in New Zealand must occur so that the care delivered is flexible and responsive to the needs of consumers and their families. The changes in the socio-political context of mental health care in New Zealand are challenging nurses to re-define their scope of practice. These developments and their implications are summarised and options for the nursing profession are discussed and recommendations given.


Competition for funding

The creation of the Regional Health Authorities (RHA) in 1991 was part of a new system of purchasing health services which replaced Area Health Boards (Yegdich & Quinn, 1996). This new funder /purchaser /provider system encouraged competition between providers and led to many new services entering the health sector. These included non-governmental services who were now able to compete directly with Crown Health Enterprises (CHE), previously there was an obligation for boards to concentrate funding on their own services (Yegdich & Quinn, 1996). In 1996 the new coalition government initiated another review of the health system leading to funding being centralised under the Transitional Health Authority (THA). Competition for central funding begs the question of whether competing services with different philosophies and types of workers can cooperate with each other. When community support services were established in Auckland there was antagonism from nurses as these new services were seen as better resourced, with lower caseloads and were seen to be eroding the role of the professional nurse.

Culturally appropriate parallel services

The changes in funding have also lead to the development of specialised Maori and Pacific Island support work services. In Auckland, the Maori community support work (CSW) service has dramatically reduced the rate of admission and re-admission for Maori . Previous statistics had shown that Maori were entering the mental health system at the same rates as non-Maori but required longer stays and more frequent re-admissions (Te Puni Kokiri, 1993). Increased numbers of immigrants and refugees from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe have led to the formation of specialised mental health services, for example the Refugees As Survivors (RAS) centre. However, a disadvantage of parallel services is that nurses in main stream services lose the opportunity to develop specialised skills for working with cultures other than their own.

Case management

Case management originated in the United States in the 1980’s in the context of deinstitutionalisation, normalisation and the development of community mental health centres (Sledge, Astrachan, Thompson, Rakfeldt & Leaf, 1995; Willis & Morrow, 1995). It was seen as a way of improving the connections between services and linking both clinical and rehabilitation services together to ensure that “severely mental ill” clients received adequate services (Sledge, et al. 1995). Versions of case management are used in New Zealand although little has been written about the experience locally. Universal agreement has not been achieved regarding the scope of practice of case managers and the level of education required. The assumption that nurses are the most suitable group to provide case management services is being challenged by the emergence of support work services and parallel ethnic mental health teams.

Role change

Yegdich and Quinn (1996) have observed that the role of nurses has extended with the move from institution to community. Needs of clients now include housing, income, employment and social networks. However, an audit of community services in Auckland found that the dominant activity of nurses was crisis intervention (Yegdich & Quinn, 1996). Support work services have evolved in recognition of the gaps in community care provision. This movement to the community has also resulted in an increased emphasis on tertiary prevention, rehabilitation and recovery. New postgraduate training courses in mental health nursing have been developed as a result of a growing dissatisfaction with comprehensive nurse training and what is seen as inadequate preparation for working in this area (Ministry of Health, 1996). This is also important from a case management perspective particularly as broader skills are necessary for this role, for example knowledge of community resources.

Changing relationship with consumers

The consumer movement is influencing the movement of mental health service delivery from a medical to psychosocial rehabilitation model (Worley, 1997). New opportunities have arisen for consumers to interact with policy makers, professionals and others from a position of strength. Consumer operated programmes and initiatives have been developed due to the dissatisfaction with clinical mental health services. Consumers have found consumer-staffed organisations more empathetic, tolerant and understanding because of their own struggles with psychiatric disability (Worley, 1997). Consequently, guidelines have been developed as a result of increased consumer participation in professionally run mental health agencies (Ministry of Health, 1995). This has also led to changes in relationships between consumers and professionals. There is growing recognition on the part of professionals of the value of experiential knowledge and what consumers have to offer other consumers.

Safety and extended roles

  • Assessment by a nurse is required to detect changes in the mental state of a client. Where a support worker is the predominant contact, changes may be missed particularly if they have no clinical experience or assessment skills. In an article about extended roles, Rieu (1994) stated that discussion about accountability (“professional” and “legal”) and competency is needed. Other questions that need to be addressed include:
  • What preparation and training are support workers given?
  • What supervision do they get and how are they regulated?
  • How well are they resourced and supported?
  • Is their scope of practice clearly defined?


Recognising the strengths of support workers

Support workers are seen as filling the gaps in community care, particularly in terms of work with clients with complex needs not met within the reductionist medical model (Davies, Harris, Roberts, Mannion, McCosker & Anderson, 1996). Other advantages include breaking the barrier of client-worker distance, providing a bridge between clients and mainstream staff and providing a role model for clients of similar background (Davies et al., 1996). Studies have shown that support workers are considered more effective than health professionals for several groups with varying mental health needs (Davies et al., 1996; Grant, Ernst, Streissgut, Phipps & Gendler, 1996). These include abused women, who have viewed the health system as sexist, fragmented and professionals as judgemental and insensitive (Davies et al., 1996). Other studies have shown that chronically drug-dependent women have become distrustful of “helping” agencies and in turn many professionals see these women as a hopeless population (Grant et al., 1996). They describe an advocacy model of case management using support workers, who worked intensively with women, who used drugs or alcohol heavily during their pregnancies and were alienated from community services. This alienation increased the risk of delivering children with serious medical, developmental and behavioural problems. It also prevented them from seeking assistance from agencies that were designed to help them. These ‘advocates’ were support workers experienced in social services with high-risk populations, had a variety of life experiences and came from a similar cultural background to their clients. They were seen as positive role models, providing hope and motivation. It was found after one year that clients now engaged with treatment agencies, decreased drug use, increased use of birth control and increased their involvement with supportive and skill building groups, such as parenting classes (Grant, et al., 1996).

Training and education of nurses

Nursing training must incorporate concepts such as recovery and consumer perspectives. Nurses need to be supported to work as case managers and build on their roles as more than adjuncts to the medical model. Mental health nurses working in the community must clarify their current roles and define what pathways they will follow.

Diversity in the workforce to provide culturally appropriate services

Reviews have shown that there are a paucity of culturally safe services for Maori and Pacific people (Ministry of Health, 1997). Furthermore, the provision of resources and devolution of resources have not supported other views of mental illness (Mental Health Commission, 1996). “Moving Forward” (Ministry of Health, 1997) national objectives states more trained mental health workers are needed before culturally appropriate services can be provided by mainstream and kaupapa Maori mental health services. A better partnership is needed between education and health sectors so that training can be specifically targeted to Maori. The Pacific Island objective also recommends that work be done so that mental health services become more responsive to the diverse needs of Pacific peoples. The national objectives recommend educating consumers as providers, community support workers and Maori and Pacific Island workers.

Better cooperation with ethnic support workers

In an Australian article, Fuller (1995) argued that health care practices by professionals continue to be predominantly monocultural despite recognition of the need to be responsive to the culturally diverse population. Fuller added that different ethnic groups practice illness prevention and health promotion differently. Some prefer direct, practical and immediate assistance from the Western care system rather than long term strategies. Fuller argued that nurses could not attain all the necessary cultural knowledge to provide total care to clients without a partnership with cultural intermediaries. According to Fuller, this expectation would result in lists of stereotypical traits being produced rather than an improved understanding of clients individual needs. Fuller added that the values and assumptions of primary nursing with contradictory notions of empowerment and autonomy have resulted in rigid professional boundaries which restrict multi-disciplinary team work, thereby increasing the need for an ethnic support worker.

Alternative structures and models

The Ministry of Health (1997) recommends that mental health promotion and prevention for Maori and Pacific Islanders be strengthened. They suggest using traditional (Pacific and New Zealand) structures to promote mental health including circulating Pacific language descriptions of key western mental illnesses. In addition, the Report of the National Working Party on Mental Health Workforce Development (Ministry of Health, 1996) suggested that Maori consumers become integrated into the provider culture of mental health services, so services reflect the wealth of Maori consumer experience. This is in line with the request by Maori consumers to have more Maori community support workers, patient advocates and crisis teams. This leads on to the next area for discussion about who can best provide services for those with mental health needs. Takeuchi, Mokuau & Chun (1992) found that the establishment of parallel services improved mental health for minorities and led to an increase in their use.

Multiskilled, multidisciplinary and comprehensive

According to Øvretveit (1993), it is rare that one profession alone is able to meet the needs of a person with a social or health need. Usually the skills and knowledge of a range of specialists are beneficial and coordination is crucial to prevent costs of duplication and staff frustration. This is echoed by the Report of the National Working Party on Mental Health Workforce Development (Ministry of Health, 1996). It suggests that the best way to deliver mental health services to consumers is by having a team of multi-skilled and multi disciplinary workers. This team would be able to address the many facets of care required by sufferers of mental illness and would include community support workers as well as Maori and Pacific Island workers. “Moving Forward’s” National objectives are to increase the Maori and Pacific Island mental health workforce. In addition, a flexible system is required where a case manager might need to spend more time with someone as the nature of mental illness changes rapidly.

A proposed model of cooperation

The mental health of consumers will be maximised if professionals and support workers are able to work in partnership and combine their skills, knowledge, life experience and expertise in a coordinated way. This would ensure that services are respectful, relevant, flexible, responsive and effective and that they are available to consumers to reduce the barriers that prevent them from achieving their full health potential. The framework for community service delivery for people with mental health problems needs to be comprehensive, health promoting and collaborative; a partnership that is committed to client empowerment and the elimination of barriers to access (Association of Ontario Health Centres, 1994).


Several recommendations are proposed:


  • Adopt protocols for networking within all services so that inter-agency cooperation is maximised and clients receive a seamless service.
  • Improve the interface between clinical, cultural and psychosocial models to increase understanding and collaboration from both perspectives.


  • Educate support workers to understand the role of the nurse but not to the extent that traditional healing structures are negated in favour of psychotherapeutic methods.
  • Formalise traditional roles into the mental health system, for example the role of Kaumatua (Street & Walsh, 1996).
  • Train nurses in cultural and psychosocial models.

Role and Scope of practice

  • Develop job descriptions for support workers in cooperation with nurses to prevent role ambiguity, promote job satisfaction and decrease discontent.
  •  Support and safeguard support workers to ensure that their role does not compromise the safety of clients and staff or the role of the nurse.
  • Use nurses appropriately and ensure that they are not substituted by support workers for fiscal or political reasons.
  • Define core competencies for support workers at a national level and ensure on-going monitoring of standards.

Alternatives to the medical model

  • Recognise that the clinical model has limitations and cannot meet the needs of all clients.
  • Increase familiarity with alternative models of mental health amongst nurses, for example recovery and cultural models.
  • Review and clarify the role of nurses working in mental health.

Cultural safety 

  • Acknowledge the importance of spiritual issues, land rights, whanau reconstruction and physical health (Street & Walsh, 1996).
  • Resource nurses appropriately for the cultural component of their work.
  • Involve nurses in developing appropriate policy and healthcare services to Maori and ethnic minorities in New Zealand (Street & Walsh, 1996).
  • Familiarise nurses with the work of ethnic mental health workers and Maori support work services.

Consumer participation/consumer focused

  • Recognise the experiential and personal knowledge of consumers.
  • Ensure that consumers are key players in planning and accountability structures which are linked to outcome measures.


This paper has shown how support workers can reach clients who are lost to or fearful of the mental health system, whether this is because of social, ethnic or cultural reasons. In an evolving mental health system moving from institutionalisation to community-based care, these new roles provide a bridge between the clinician and the consumer. No one group can meet all the needs of consumers. Support workers can widen the focus of the mental health system in a way that better meets the needs of clients in the community at large, whatever their background. Friction has existed between nurses and support workers, the former often viewing the latter as eroding their role and of being unskilled. Alternatively support workers have sometimes viewed nurses as part of a system that they see as having failed them. Support workers are seen by some as being a political solution to eroded health care funding. Although there are several issues requiring on-going discussion, not least the legal and ethical requirements for support workers and their regulation, a synergy exists between nurses and support workers and together they can provide complimentary services to improve client care. For this to be successful a model of cooperation is necessary and further clarification of roles and overlap is required. Effective teamwork between nurses and support workers in the mental health community in New Zealand must occur so that the care delivered is flexible and responsive to the needs of consumers and their families. A guiding framework of principles for working in harmony should be developed.


Association of Ontario Health Centres (1994). Response to: “Implementation Vision” – Mental Health Reform. Toronto: Association of Ontario Health Centres

Davies, J; Harris, M; Roberts, G; Mannion, J; McCosker, H & Anderson, D. (1996). Community health workers’ response to violence against women. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Mental Health Nursing,5, 20-31.

Fuller, J. (1995). Challenging old notions of professionalism: how can nurses work with paraprofessional ethnic health workers? Journal of Advanced nursing, 22, 465-472.

Grant, T.M.; Ernst, C.C.; Streissgut, A.P.; Phipps, P.& Gendler, B. (1996).When case management isn’t enough: a model of paraprofessional advocacy for drug and alcohol abusing mothers. Journal of Case Management, 5, 1, , 3-11.

Mental Health Commission (1997). Discrimination against people with experience of mental illness: Discussion paper for the mental health commission. Wellington: Mental health commission.

Ministry of Health (1995). A guide to effective consumer participation in mental health services. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

Ministry of Health (1996). Towards better mental health services: The report of the national working party on mental health workforce development. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

Ministry of Health (1997). Moving forward: The National Mental Health Plan for more and better services. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

Øvretveit, J. (1993). Coordinating community care. Open University press: Buckingham. Rieu, S. (1994). Error and trial: the extended role dilemma. British Journal of Nursing, 3, 4, 168-174.

Street, A & Walsh, C. (1996). Community nursing issues in Maori Mental Health. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 5, 54-62. Te Puni Kokiri (1993).

Nga Ia O Te Oranga Hinengaro Maori trends in Maori Mental Health: A discussion document. Wellington: Te Puni Kokiri. Worley, N. (1997). Mental health nursing in the community. .Mosby: St Louis.

Yegdich, T & Quinn, J. (1996). Community mental health nursing. In Clinton, M & Nelson, S (Ed), Mental health & Nursing practice, (p335-353). Sydney: Prentice Hall.


More recent references

Annadale, M., & Instone, A. (2004). Sei Tapu: Evaluation of the National Certificate in Mental Health Support Work. Wellington, New Zealand: Platform.

Barber, K. F. M. (2015). Realising Our Best Intentions: Vision, Values and Voice in Community Non-government Organisations of the Aotearoa$\backslash$ New Zealand Mental Health Sector. University of Waikato. Retrieved from

Cheng, R., & Smith, C. (2009). Engaging people with lived experience for better health outcomes: Collaboration with mental health and addiction service users in research, policy, and …. Toronto, Ontario: Minister’s Advisory Group,. Retrieved from

Hatcher, S., Mouly, S., Rasquinha, D., & Miles, W. (2005). Improving recruitment to the mental health workforce in New Zealand. Of New Zealand. Retrieved from

Hennessy, J. L., Smythe, L., Abbott, M., & Hughes, F. A. (2016). Mental Health Support Workers: An Evolving Workforce. Workforce Development Theory and Practice in the Mental Health Sector, 200.


Hennessy, J. L. (2015). The contribution of the mental health support worker to the mental health services in New Zealand: an Appreciative Inquiry approach. Auckland University of Technology. Retrieved from

McMorland, J., Kukler, B., Murray, L., & Warriner, R. (2008). Partnerships in Development: developments in mental health service provision in New Zealand. A case study. New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online), 33(1), 19.

Morrison, N., & Ronan, K. (2002). Assessment of Core Competency Status and Work Environment of Residential Mental Health Support Workers. The Australian Journal of Rehabilitation Counselling, 8(02), 114–126.

Morrison, N. (2000). Assessment of competency status of residential mental health support workers: a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Psychology at Massey University. Massey University. Retrieved from


O’Neil, P., Bryson, J., Cutforth, T., & Minogue, G. (2008). Mental health services in Northland. Industrial Relations Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, July, 2–3.

O’Hagan, M. (2001). Recovery Competencies for New Zealand Mental Health Workers. Retrieved from

Pace, B. (2009b). Organisational views of the mental health support worker role and function. Unpublished Paper. Waikato Institute of Technology, New Zealand. Retrieved from

Pace, B. (2009a). How New Zealand community mental health support workers perceive their role. Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation. Vol 13 (2). 5. Retrieved from

Pace, B. (2010). Exploring support work: Examining the role of mental health support workers in New Zealand (p. 159). Wellington, New Zealand: B. Pace.

Pace, B. (2009). A practical guide to mental health support work (p. 94). Wellington, New Zealand: B. Pace.

Reeves-Timms, H. (2011). Diploma in action: Making a difference when working with tangata whai ora. Retrieved from

Rangiaho, A. (2003). Te Puawaitanga o Te Oranga Hinengaro-An evaluation of the Natioonal Certificate in Mental Health Support Work from a Maori perspective. Wellington, New Zealand: Mental Health Support Work.

Scott, A. (2015). Gaining acceptance: Discourses on training and qualifications in peer support. New Zealand Sociology, 30(4), 38.

Southwick, M., & Solomona, M. (2007). Improving Recruitment and Retention for the Pacific Mental Health Workforce. Auckland: The National Centre of Mental Health Research and Workforce Development. Retrieved from

Sutcliffe, R. (2007). What is the meaning of supervision for mental health support workers? A critical hermeneutic inquiry. Retrieved from

Taylor, G. E. (2015). Who cares about carers? Experiences of community mental health support workers from a feminist perspective. University of Waikato. Retrieved from


Scott, A. L., Doughty, C., & Kahi, H. (2011). Peer Support Practice in Aotearoa New Zealand. Retrieved from

Te Ararau, K. P. (n.d.). Māori mental health workforce development. Retrieved from

The ‘small’ things count in caring

Editorial published in Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand 8.10 (Nov 2002): p28(1).

KAI TIAKI Nursing New Zealand has recently carried narratives written by nurses discussing their experiences as recipients of health care, eg “My Journey of Pain” by Glenis McCallum (July 2002, p16). These experiences gave the nurses the opportunity to re-examine their practice and to reclaim their empathy.

Similarly, a personal experience provided the impetus to write this brief piece. I recently had the opportunity to re-evaluate my own beliefs about nursing and the importance of communication and caring when I witnessed my sister receiving care in a hospital maternity setting. What came across was the importance of the “small” things–the caring and the communication, and the importance of compassion and empathy. The sweetness of the person who opened the door to the unit and said “welcome to our world”. The rudeness, almost surliness, of the nurses who forgot to introduce themselves or tell us what was happening.

Rightly, there is much focus on nursing as a profession, yet is it possible that in this debate we have forgotten the small things that really matter to our clients -the things that make people feel safe and cared for?

This personal and professional interest was further piqued by two workshops held in Auckland recently that focused on maternal mental health issues. Both highlighted the important role nurses have to play when caring for women experiencing childbirth.

In the first workshop, organised by the education and support group, Trauma and Birth Stress (TABS), 170 consumers and health professionals gathered to explore post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after childbirth. The group TABS was formed by women who had all experienced stressful and traumatic pregnancies or births that had negatively affected their lives for months or even years after the experience. One of TABS’s aims is to educate health professionals on the distinctions between PTSD and post-natal depression so the chance of misdiagnosis is lessened and correct treatment is started quickly.

Speakers at the workshop included an international nursing researcher from the United States, Cheryl Beck. A number of New Zealand women have shared their stories of PTSD with Beck and have found telling their stories and having someone understand and believe them has been very therapeutic. Other speakers included TABS member Phillida Bunkle and Auckland University of Technolgy midwifery lecturer Nimisha Waller who spoke on how mid wives can assist mothers with PTSD.

In my role at UNITEC Institute of Technology, I organised the second workshop, which also featured Beck. Entitled “Teetering on the edge: Postpartum depression–assessment and best practice”, the workshop attracted around 100 nurses, midwives, GPs and consumers. A professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Connecticut, Beck has for many years focused her efforts on developing a research programme on postpartum depression. Using both qualitative and quantitative research methods, she has extensively researched this devastating mood disorder that affects many new mothers. Based on the findings from her series of qualitative studies, she has developed the postpartum depression screening scale (PDSS). Currently Beck’s research is focused on PTSD after childbirth and she presented her work to date. In September, there were 27 participants in the study, 18 from New Zealand and the rest from the United States.

The themes of her presentation were a reminder of the dramatic negative consequences of occurrences we as health professionals deal with frequently. Emergency situations arise and we all do our job, often without a second thought as to the future impact of our actions (or inactions) on the woman and her family.

Beck also spoke at the TABS work shop. The response to both workshops was really positive. Workshops such as these, where the long-term impacts of the health care experience are discussed, can act as a reminder for anyone working with women at and around the time of childbirth to critically view their practice and that of their colleagues. Themes that feature in the research are around caring, communication and competence–the very things that were absent in my recent experience of the health system. Women in the study felt they were not shown caring, communication from health providers was poor, and they perceived their care as incompetent.

Through her research, Beck poses the question so many mothers ask: “Was it too much to ask to care for me?” As health professionals, we need to ask ourselves every day “how can I care for the needs of this client?”, because nursing is not just a profession, it is a caring profession.

* For further information on TABS

Care of the person with Borderline personality disorder in the community

First published online by Ruth DeSouza 1997


The development of community-based models of care in New Zealand has led to dramatic changes in the treatment available for people with mental illnesses. However, we appear to be failing to provide comprehensive coordinated and continuous care for clients diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). One major problem is the stigma and dread that many community mental health nurses equate with the care of people diagnosed with BPD, resulting in the care given being limited and fragmented. This article examines the trauma paradigm for viewing BPD and provides an overview of the knowledge and skills that are required to care for people diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder within the community .


Kaplan and Sadock (1991) define personality as both emotional and behavioural traits that characterise the person and state that personality is stable and predictable to some degree. Thus, a personality disorder is a deviation from the range of character traits that are considered “normal” for most people. When these traits are inflexible and maladaptive and the result is distress and impaired functioning they are considered to be a class of personality disorder. Of the ten different personality disorders in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM- IV), one of the most controversial is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

There is much debate around the definition and diagnosis of BPD (Shea, 1991). The term was first used in 1938 to refer to a group of disorders that lie between neuroses and psychoses (Greene and Ugarizza, 1995) but can also be used as a disparaging label for difficult clients (Reiser & Levenson, 1984). Some of the challenges in caring for clients with BPD relate to the symptoms and intense transference and counter-transference in the relationship between client and nurse/therapist (Gallop, 1985). This can result in nurses feeling frustrated, helpless, distant and even denying mental health services (Gabbard, 1991 cited in Greene & Ugarriza, 1995). A person with BPD is often seen as an impostor, who is in control of their behaviour but who chooses to be difficult and manipulative (Nehls & Diamond, 1993). Studies show that 77% of those diagnosed with BPD are women (Widiger & Weissman, 1991).


There are several explanations of the aetiology of BPD.

Biological factors

Greene and Ugarizza (1995) offer two biological explanations for BPD. The first focuses on neurotransmitter activity and systems, where an increase in dopamine action can account for transient psychotic states and decreased serotonin activity can account for irritability and impulsiveness. Lastly, an increase in the cholinergic pathways can lead to depression in clients with BPD. The second explanation puts forward organic brain dysfunction caused by trauma, epilepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a cause of the increased impulsiveness, self-mutilation and affective disinhibition seen in BPD. However, Kaplan et al., (1991) argue a genetic link, proposing that people with BPD have more relatives with mood disorders than a control group and often have a mood disorder themselves as well.

Psychoanalytical factors

Another theory of the aetiology of BPD relates to the psychological birth of the human being or process of separation-individuation, which occurs, between birth and three years of age. In this process a sense of self is developed by the child, a permanent sense of significant others (object constancy) and the integration of both good and bad as part of the self concept (Mahler, Pine & Bergman, 1975). Mothering influences the outcome of the separation– individuation process but if this is inconsistent, insensitive or unattuned to a child’s needs then dysfunction occurs (Westen, 1990). If a child’s efforts to be autonomous are punished whilst dependent behaviour is rewarded, differentiation does not occur and responses such as intense anger, mood swings, dichotomous thinking and identity diffusion can result, all of which are seen in a person with BPD.

Childhood abuse/ Trauma

The trauma perspective is gaining increased recognition as studies show strong correlations between sexual or physical abuse in early childhood and the development of BPD (Paris, 1993). Herman (1992) argues that what is labelled BPD is a manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), called “complex PTSD”, which follows prolonged, repeated trauma resulting in personality changes (most prominently identity and relationship disturbance).

Biosocial factors

Linehan (1993) hypothesises that people diagnosed with BPD have a biological tendency to react more intensely to lower levels of stress than others and to take longer to recover. Linehan adds that often they were raised in invalidating environments and became uncertain of the truth of their own feelings. As adults a failure to master three basic dialectics means they go from one polarity to another.

Cultural issues

There is little literature to indicate that BPD occurs in other than Western cultures, despite the extensive research that has been done on BPD.

Assessment and diagnosis

As seen in the aetiology section above, the accuracy of the diagnosis of BPD is controversial. Most approaches to treatment define BPD according to DSM-IV using a descriptive objective approach (Shea, 1991). Some writers argue that this dominance of DSM-IV in psychiatric settings (as expert authority of behaviours outside the norm) means that a diagnosis pathologises behaviour (Crowe, 1997; Gallop, 1997). In this section the DSM-IV perspective and the trauma perspective are reviewed.

DSM-IV and the medical model

In this paradigm “Borderline personality disorder is described as a pervasive pattern of interpersonal relationships, self-image and affects and marked impulsivity” (Crowe, 1996, p106). It falls under the DSM-IV Axis II diagnostic category, cluster B (dramatic, emotional, erratic) and can be associated with co-morbidity of Axis I and II disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Diagnosis is problematic because of the fluctuating nature of symptoms and concerns that are presented by the client (Arntz, 1994).

In order to be diagnosed with BPD a person must meet five of nine criteria described in the DSM-IV (1994). These are around abandonment, unstable interpersonal relationships, identity disturbance, impulsivity, recurrent suicidal threats, gestures or behaviours, affective instability, chronic feelings of emptiness, inappropriate intense anger, transient stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms. Skodol and Oldham (1992) recommended that 2-5 years is the minimum clinical time to indicate a stable personality pattern. Whilst Paris (1993) added that by middle age the majority of clients with BPD had recovered from acute symptoms and no longer met the criteria for BPD (Greene & Ugarriza, 1995).

Complex post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

The medical model paradigm of personality disorder is criticised by several researchers (Brown, 1992; Herman, 1992), who see the label as misleading and having negative effects on treatment. Herman warns that trying to fit people into the DSM-IV mould without addressing the underlying trauma or understanding what the problem is, results in fragmented care. Brown (1992 agrees and suggests the distress of abuse resembles responses to experiences of interpersonal trauma rather than core personality pathology. Brown and Walker (1986) argue that a diagnosis that lies between personality disorders and PTSD that is framed situationally is more helpful as it can be changed rather than as personality which can not. This diagnosis acknowledges the effect of multiple exposures to trauma which must be adapted to daily for victims of trauma and interpersonal violence and varies from PTSD, which assumes a single exposure to trauma outside the range of everyday experience.

Gender bias and stigmatisation

Brown (1992) argues that androcentric gender role norms and stereotypes influence judgements of psychopathology, which result in more women than men being diagnosed with BPD and the stigmatisation by mental health professionals of gender role traits that are normative for women. Often the traits and behaviour considered dependent, passive, dysfunctional and pathological are appropriate and skilful ways of accessing some power in a context where more overt and appropriate expressions of power are stigmatised or penalised (Brown). The effects of sexism multiplied by the requirements for survival under abuse require an alternative frame of reference to viewing a person’s symptoms. Further stigmatisation of certain behaviours occurs through having space for Axis II personality traits irrespective of whether they are at a psychopathological level. Brown adds that context and variables such as race, gender, class and experience of abuse or victimisation are not considered either. Brown (1992) and Gallop (1997) propose a feminist perspective for BPD that takes into account the meaning of interpersonal context and relatedness rather than separation and individuation.

Power dynamics

Brown and Gallop (1997) argue that the mental health setting often mirrors the interpersonal power dynamics where abuse occurred. The presence of a powerful other can exacerbate symptoms and vary from how someone presents in a more power-equal situation. Many non-exploitative situations would need to be experienced before patterns of survival were relinquished.

Age trauma occurred

Van der Kolk, Hostetler, Herron & Fisler (1994) suggest that up to a century ago, research showed traumatised people would have their personality development checked at whatever point the trauma occurred after which it could no longer be added to. The authors suggest trauma has different effects at different stages of development. If the trauma is experienced as an adult then it is more likely to become what is known in the DSM-IV as PTSD. However, if trauma is experienced at an earlier age, then different manifestations of developmental arrest will be seen, therefore a person traumatised at a particular age might process intense emotions later in life the way someone at that age would, using earlier developmental accomplishments. The earlier someone is traumatised, the more pervasive their psychological disability.

Ethical and legal issues

There are major ethical and legal issues to consider in caring for people with BPD in the community. An awareness of the Mental Health Act is vital and issues such as splitting and ambivalence can make the area of ethical and legal issues a minefield.


People with BPD represent the highest risk of suicide of any of the personality disorders and factors such as “overplaying their hand” or being rescued unexpectedly make suicide risk difficult to ascertain (Stone, 1993). He suggests that the therapist/nurse can become skilled at predicting suicide risk through clinical experience, supervision and by becoming familiar with the literature on suicide risk. The exploration of specific individual techniques for controlling impulses, such as the desire to self-harm, to identify triggers and patterns and increase self-awareness can also be useful. Including such questions as “do you want to slash?”, “Do you want us to help you control slashing?” (Gallop, 1992). Respecting the autonomy of a client with BPD can be difficult if they are presenting with suicidal ideation and there is a requirement to assess the need for compulsory treatment.

Medico-legal issues

Gutheil (1985) makes several points in his article about medico-legal issues that can arise in the treatment of people with BPD. In respect of the Mental Health Act (1992) there can be a legal ignorance of BPD as some people present with excellent functioning whilst others appear too sick to be discharged from compulsory treatment. The effects of borderline psychodynamics such as borderline rage, narcissistic entitlement, psychotic transferences, threats of suicide and impulsivity can also be challenging in relation to the Mental Health Act (1992).

Treatment issues

There are several issues that impact on the treatment of a client with BPD and which are important for nurses to be aware of. These are discussed prior to the exploration of psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological treatments.

Transference and counter-transference

The therapeutic alliance is the foundation of therapy, which is often difficult to establish and maintain, particularly in the face of disruptive pressures that arise in therapy with a client with BPD (Meissner, 1993). This alliance and transference and countertransference are called “the therapeutic tripod” by Meissner. In the transference, the client relives their relationship with their parents through the nurse and can be very perceptive about who is working with them. This survival skill was learnt through anticipating the needs of their caregivers to prevent victimisation (Van der Kolk et al., 1994). Often an equally strong counter-transference is evoked in the nurse because of the strong emotion and conflict in the transference, which can include helplessness, fury and despair. Nurses can feel a need to rescue or compensate (Van der Kolk et al.,1994). In order to remain therapeutic, it is essential for nurses to know themselves, have safe spaces to review these issues in supervision and ensure they get support from their clinical teams.


Van der Kolk et al. (1994) suggest that negotiating safety and forming safe attachments are a way in which a client with BPD is able to regulate their internal state. This is especially the case if people with BPD are fixated on the emotional and cognitive level at which they were traumatised and continue to deal with difficulties using the resources at that point in their development . The authors recommend that basic trust and safety are negotiated prior to approaching trauma related material.


Gallop (1985) suggests that hospitalisation is an important aspect in the management of acute episodes for people with BPD. Budget and fiscal constraints mean that people with BPD are more commonly admitted for the relief of acute symptoms, usually a shift from chronic suicidality to acute suicidality, rather than for personality restructuring. Gallop reviews the two main clinical approaches for the hospitalised person with BPD. The adaptational approach focuses on preventing regression and encouraging people to take responsibility and has a short-stay emphasis, where staff offer supportive therapy, structure and limit set. In contrast, the long-stay approach allows for regression to take place in the presence of warm and empathic staff who facilitate the process of personality restructuring. The critics of this approach argue that it leads to the exacerbation of borderline symptoms. Gallop proposes an alternative model based on the work of Linehan (1993), but which adapts dialectic behavioural therapy for use in an in-patient setting in order to maximise the current short-stay emphasis and to use the skills of clinicians. Dialectic behavioural therapy will be discussed later in this article.


Research has found dissociation to have a high correlation both with the degree of borderline psychopathology and with the severity of childhood trauma (Van der Kolk et al., 1994). Dissociation is a way of coping with inescapably traumatic situations by allowing the person to detach from the reality of the situation. Often there is a loss of the memory and the relief of pain for the situation, the person can feel numb or spaced out. For some people this becomes a conditioned response to stress even if the situation is not inescapably stressful (Van der Kolk et al., 1994).


A defence mechanism seen in clients with BPD is “splitting” (Harney, 1992) which can increase clinical risk if alternate strategies are recommended in the management of suicide risk. This risk can be reduced by ensuring clear communication and management plans across all services. Case management, where one person is responsible for the overall co-ordination of services and meetings with other care providers can also minimise splitting (Nehls & Diamond, 1993).

Psychotherapeutic interventions A systems approach

Nehls and Diamond (1993) state that people with BPD have diverse treatment needs, so treatment should to be based on comprehensive assessment and subsequent individualised treatment planning. This can be difficult for several reasons including: the number and intensity of crises that a person with BPD can have; the theoretical orientation of the clinician and interventions that are made hastily and based on negative reactions to a client or the diagnosis of BPD rather than careful assessment.

Nehls & Diamond propose a systems approach that includes: Individual counselling and psychotherapy; group therapy; medication evaluation and monitoring; drug/alcohol services; psychosocial rehabilitation and crisis intervention services. Planning should also include hospitalisation. Shea (1991) adds that several factors are intrinsic to any of the therapeutic approaches. These include careful attention to the client, skill to address countertransference, flexibility of therapy but also the need for limit setting with the therapist taking an active role.


Shea (1991) suggests two types of psychoanalytic therapy can be helpful. Supportive psychoanalysis focuses on the improvement of adaptive functioning by strengthening defences and avoiding regression and transference by focusing on the present and keeping therapy highly structured. In expressive psychoanalysis, transference and regression are desirable and provide a means for the therapist to gain insight. Behaviour is changed as dissociated aspects are identified and clarified as they appear.

Dialectical behavioural therapy

Linehan ‘s (1993) Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) emphasises that the person with BPD has inadequate affect regulation related to biological factors and a childhood environment that is characterised by an absence of emotional regulation. DBT focuses on identifying skill deficits in a person’s life and then correcting them. The therapist teaches the client both self and relationship management skills as well as skills of mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance and emotional regulation. Therapy takes place individually and in groups and the relationship between therapist and client is paramount in treatment. In a one year trial of DBT, Linehan found that control group subjects remained in treatment longer, parasuicidal behaviour decreased as did the number of days of in-patient hospitalisation (Linehan, 1993).

Cognitive therapy

Cognitive therapy has been modified to treat clients with BPD (Beck, 1990) despite being thought of as most useful in the treatment of Axis I disorders (Shea, 1991). Arntz (1994), an advocate of cognitive therapy, argues that chronic traumatic abuse in childhood leads to fundamental beliefs that include: Others are dangerous and malignant, I am powerless and vulnerable and I am bad and unacceptable. The aim of cognitive therapy is to identify and change these beliefs, so affect and behaviour are normalised. Control over emotions and impulses are increased and identity is strengthened (Shea, 1991; Van der Kolk et al., 1994). Transference reactions provide rich material for uncovering dysfunctional thoughts and assumptions (Shea, 1991). Controlled studies have not been done as to the efficacy of this treatment approach with people with a borderline personality disorder (Shea, 1991).

Group therapy

The advantages of group therapy for the person with BPD include diluting transference and decreasing polarisation because of multiple feedback (Greene and Ugarizza, 1995). Group therapy can decrease demanding behaviour, egocentrism, social isolation and withdrawal and social deviance (Horowitz,1987 cited in Greene and Ugarizza, 1995). Van der Kolk et al., (1994) state group therapy provides both words and actions for expressing emotional states that clients with BPD have difficulty with and can borrow from other group members.

Family therapy

Research has shown a strong link between BPD and pathological families (Clarkin et al., 1991 cited in Greene and Ugarizza, 1995). Family members learn therapeutic interactions so the identified client can begin to form an identity and both the client and family modify their behaviour (Clarkin et al., 1991 cited in Greene and Ugarizza, 1995).

Alternative therapies

Van der Kolk et al., (1994) advocate using psychodrama and drawing to develop language for effective communication as a precursor to effective psychotherapy. The authors’ state that research has shown traumatised children have poor language skills for expressing their internal states. This can result in unmodulated actions, which are acted out in transferences and current relationships.


Van der Kolk et al., (1994) propose that trauma affects a persons ability to self- regulate their emotions and self-soothe. Learning to tolerate affect is a way in which a traumatised person can take part in life. Mood stabilisers such as Lithium and Carbamazepine can help decrease affective lability and impulsive behaviour (Cocarro et al., 1991), whilst antipsychotic medication can help control transient psychotic states and antidepressants help with major depression (Shea & Kocsis, 1991 cited in Greene & Ugarriza, 1995). Linehan & Kehrer (1993) recommend being aware of contraindicated effects of medications, problems with compliance, drug abuse and suicide attempts. However, as long as careful monitoring is in place Linehan & Kehrer argue that pharmacotherapy can be a useful adjunct to psychotherapy.


This article has reviewed ways of viewing BPD. The medical model remains dominant in most psychiatric settings in New Zealand but other paradigms are gaining prominence as the limits of the medical model become more evident, particularly around the management of the client with BPD. The way in which BPD is defined remains contentious and many writers in the field suggest that it is more a response to trauma than core personality pathology. This has implications for how people with BPD are cared for in New Zealand’s mental health system.

As nurses move into the role of case managers in the community, a systems approach incorporating thorough assessment and planning is a good beginning which includes assessing for previous trauma. There is also a need for multiple treatment modalities to include a variety of components such as assistance with daily living needs, pharmacotherapy, dialectical behaviour therapy, cognitive therapy and so forth. Nurses need to disengage themselves from the shadow of the medical model and begin to explore new ways of supporting clients with BPD in the community. In order for community mental health nurses to maintain therapeutic relationships with clients with BPD, they must be proactive and attain supervision, education and self- knowledge.



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