Born in Thames, 1946, Althea Hill grew up in the area before moving to boarding school in Hamilton at age twelve after her mother died. She began working at age fourteen after relocating to Wellington. Althea was given the opportunity to work at the Wellington stock exchange as the first ‘Chalkie’ in New Zealand. In 1966 she moved to Auckland to help care for her grandmother. It was during this time that Althea describes finding that ‘office work was not as challenging as I wanted my career to be’. She had always wanted to be a policewoman, but her application was declined because she was under the required height. A friend suggested that she try nursing. General nursing did not take her fancy but the thought of psychiatric nursing sounded ‘very interesting’.
Althea applied to train at Oakley Hospital. During her interview the matron took her to some of the wards to see if Althea would cope with the patients and the hospital’s environment. Having come from a ‘sheltered background’ she found some of wards ‘horrific’. In spite of this she was determined to continue with her application.
Beginning nurse training in 1968 at Oakley Mental Hospital, Althea found the work to be tough. The nurses were expected to carry out some laborious domestic tasks like mopping and polishing the floor. Althea’s father had said to her ‘you’ll never make it’ but she was determined to prove him wrong and not give up. It was this ‘sheer determination saw us [the nursing students] through’. The student nurses changed wards frequently. There were even times when they had to move to another ward during a shift. Training was largely through experience. Although they did attend class, the curriculum was ‘pretty basic’ and Althea feels she missed out on a comprehensive education of therapeutic communication. The students were taught what not to do but the rest was based on intuition. Althea reflects that she learned a lot from more senior students.
Althea describes the treatments at Oakley Hospital as following a ‘medical model’. The patients were treated with medications and were typically kept in the hospital long term. Psychiatric district nursing, known as ‘psychiatric home visiting’, was not yet available and Althea recalls that patients were not frequently discharged. The range of medications available were restricted and the long acting injections had only just been introduced. Althea describes some of the patients’ behaviours becoming more controlled on medication, however there were also some negative side effects.
It was not compulsory for students to live in the nurses’ home. Initially Althea lived in a flat in St Heliers, but she found the commuting distance too far, so she ended up moving to the nurses’ home. Althea recalls that the rules of the nurses’ home were not too strict. There were no set curfews but the student nurses’ behaviour was noted which was enough to keep them in line most of the time.
The busy nursing schedule meant that having a social life was challenging. When she began training, Althea was already in her early twenties, which made her older than many of the girls in her class. She was therefore more inclined to spend time with the friends that she had already made in Auckland outside of nursing.
The 1971 Oakley Nurses’ strike was a significant event in the hospital’s history. It was the first time nurses had ever gone on strike. Althea describes the ethical dilemmas that the nurses faced in making the decision to strike. Going on strike meant that the hospital was left understaffed which concerned many of the nurses. She reflects that the strike eventually achieved the goals it set out to and improved both patient care and nurses’ working conditions.
Althea returned to New Zealand and Carrington Hospital in 1974. The hospital had undergone significant change in the year she had been away. It had split into Carrington and Oakley. Therapeutic groups were being introduced and ‘the beginnings of deinstitutionalisation were starting to take place’.
In 1975 Althea undertook a one-year ‘pressure cooker course’ in general nursing. This year of training was a challenge because it covered a lot in a short period of time and a great deal was expected of registered psychiatric nurses. She describes the course as broadening her theoretical knowledge of nursing.
Back at Carrington, Althea was made a ward sister in 1976, a position she held for four months before becoming a tutor nurse in June that year. Initially, Althea was given no instruction about how to teach. ‘I didn’t have a clue what I was doing’. From this time, however, Althea’s career was largely centred on nursing education. She became an in-service educator in 1982, a role which involved teaching new skills to registered nurses. In 1989 she began working as a psychiatric nurse tutor at Carrington Polytechnic (later called Unitec) and in 1997, transferred to Northland Polytechnic in Whangarei.
Throughout her teaching career Althea worked to integrate therapeutic techniques into psychiatric nursing. She attended training in various psychotherapeutic modalities and in 1977 spent time in Canada on a scholarship working with an expert of psychodrama. There she learned techniques such as role reversal. In her teaching Althea was also committed to promoting and incorporating cultural safety and an understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi.
After moving to Thames in 2005, Althea took a role as a community mental health nurse. Although she describes it as the biggest challenge of her life, Althea found the role very rewarding. In 2013, Althea says that she felt ‘the time had definitely come to retire’. Althea reflects that throughout her 45-year career she has seen significant change in the care of mental health patients.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Althea Hill: