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Richard MacDonald lost his son to suicide.  The tragedy led him to pursue a role supporting others with the same mental health issues his son had struggled with. “I made a decision that I wanted to help support people in my community,” says Richard. 

Mental health wasn’t the path Richard originally chose for himself. He had spent fifteen years in dairy farming, and seventeen years as a painter.  

At school, Richard couldn’t leave soon enough. Now in his mid-forties, he faced the idea of having to study again for the first time in years. 

Mental Health Apprentice graduate Richard MacDonald

Working in mental health meant learning new skills.  Richard had also experienced his own addiction and mental health issues, and understood some of the environments where alcohol and violence were prevalent, and where kids like his son had hung out.  

Personal lived experience makes the learning easier to relate to

This understanding meant the learning came relatively easily. Last year, and supported by his employer, Te Oranganui, Richard successfully completed his Level 4 Apprenticeship in Mental Health and Addiction Support with work-based learning provider Careerforce Te Pūkenga.

Now in a fulfilling role he was born to play, Richard is a Kaituruki at Te Oranganui working in the community with adult males. Te Oranganui delivers a range of health and social services to people throughout Whanganui and neighbouring regions. 

“Many clients have complex issues, some suffering from schizophrenia, some are homeless and many deal with stigma and discrimination on a day-to-day basis,” says Richard. 

Richard was working as a painter, when he decided to complete a Level 3 Health and Wellbeing Certificate part-time through the Open Polytechnic, also a business division of Te Pūkenga. “I learnt a lot about myself and my own issues and my relationship with my son.”  

He fell into a job at Te Oranganui, initially working at a residential facility in the community, where he enrolled in the Level 4 apprenticeship, a requirement of the role.  “The work really resonated with me, and when a position came up in the community a year later, I applied and was accepted.  It’s fantastic. It’s been amazing,” says Richard. 

“The worse experience I’ve ever had in losing my son has probably given me the most” 

“I guess it’s a lot to do with life experience. I don’t know why, but I seem to have the ability to make good meaningful connections with some of the harder to reach people in the community.

“I feel like in a sense, the worse experience I’ve ever had in losing my son has probably given me the most out of anything. I feel like I’m doing it for him.” 

Although his work experience was limited, Richard says he was able to quickly put into practice things he was learning in the Careerforce Apprenticeship. 

“Everything really resonated with me, and I found I could relate to it all quite easily.  I would read about something and think, I’m already doing that and that’s why I do that. 

“Dealing with home life, trying to study and working in a role dealing with mental health issues can be a juggling act, but I’ve found the knowledge I gained outweighs the challenges of having to study.” 

Richard hadn’t even received his Level 4 Apprenticeship certificate, when he was already considering his next steps. He wanted to step up and has now enrolled in the Level 5 Diploma in Health and Wellbeing, also through Careerforce Te Pūkenga.    

“So far, the Diploma has been pretty good, but definitely more challenging. I have to put in a bit more detail and thought. The hardest thing at the moment is my workload which is quite high. I’ve got a few clients that are unwell.  One client coming out of prison soon, and I’m trying to find housing for another. It’s pretty busy at the moment – it’s a balancing act. 


Te Oranganui and Careerforce have provided many learning supports

Te Oranganui have been very supportive in the process. “They have been awesome.  We have personal development time available. I have 3.5 days in the community, and I do meals on wheels. I have an extra day in the office, and if I have time, I can spend it studying if I want to.” 

Careerforce Assessor, Christine Moss, is supporting Richard on his Level 5 Diploma journey. “Te Oranganui are an exemplar on how to support your staff through work-based training. We know that time is the biggest barrier to learner success, and Te Oranganui support of their staff through personal development/study time is to be applauded.” 

“Christine has been brilliant,” says Richard, “The support is there when I need it, just a phone call or an email away.” 

Richard is already thinking about his next move, beyond his Diploma. “I wouldn’t mind doing a degree and there are a couple of post graduate papers I was thinking of doing, based around grief.   

“What I’ve gained out of my work-based learning, firstly from the apprenticeship and now from the Diploma is immeasurable. I wouldn’t do the classroom learning – my brain doesn’t work like that. 

“Being able to use my work and my knowledge through my studies has made going back to study aged 48 easy.  

“Probably if I did it any other way, I think I would have given up to be honest,” says Richard. 


More information

For more information about the Careerforce supported Apprenticeship in Mental Health and Addiction Support and the Diploma in Health and Wellbeing (Level 5), contact Careerforce, a business division of Te Pūkenga.