Terryann Clark is a professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Auckland and the Cure Kids professorial chair in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. Cure Kids recently released their State of Child Health in Aotearoa report, with a new focus on mental health. (Photo: Auckland University)

Professor Terryann Clark could’ve moved on from her Northland freezing works hometown and followed her interest in becoming an artist. But her mum thought nursing would be more profitable, and that set her off on a medical career. TC, as Terryann became known, paints a picture of herself as an academic struggler early on, but her focus became mental health and, despite serious physical setbacks, she’s become an influential voice in that field.

Here she’s telling Dale about her mental health work, especially among young people — and some of her distinctive experiences.


Tēnā koe, Terryann. Thanks for joining us here on E-Tangata. And do you know what? You’re the very first Terryann that I’ve met.

Well, that name came about because my father is Terry, and my mum is Johanna — and they put those two names together when they were naming me. It’s not hyphened. It doesn’t have an “e”. And nearly everybody spells it wrong.

But pretty much everyone knows me as TC. And I have Coralie as my middle name. That comes from Mum’s sister.

Could you also tell us about your whakapapa line? 

I grew up in Moerewa, a beautiful, little town north of Whangārei. Jo, my mother, was adopted. It was one of the closed adoptions in the 1950s, and so we’ve had to search for the details of our whakapapa.

She was brought up by Lucy Tihema (nee Wihongi) who then married Andrew Campbell. She grew up in Kāeo, and in Moerewa. Terry, my dad, is Pākehā, and he grew up in Wekaweka Valley in the Hokianga, and was raised by his mum Mabel Powick.

I was a bit hōhā, because we weren’t getting very far with finding my mum’s whakapapa. So, we did Ancestry.com and Heritage.com, to try and do it through DNA, because all the roadblocks around the Adoption Act meant that we weren’t able to access information about my mum.

And, in that search, we found her māmā. Then, just last month, I think we found my mum’s pāpā. We’re still working through all that, but already it’s been an amazing journey. I grew up claiming my mum’s adoptive whānau whakapapa, Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu.

But watch this space. So far, it looks like we could have tūpuna from Ngāti Wai — and we might also have tūpuna from Ngāti Whātua and from Ngāpuhi. So it’s exciting. But there’s also been all the shame, and the layers of colonisation, which have meant that we didn’t have access to whakapapa. Learning more about that has been quite a journey. I’m feeling, though, like we’re almost there.

With mum Jo and Nana Lucy Campbell (nee Wihongi). (Photo supplied)

I feel for your mum. It’s not the first time I’ve heard of closed adoptions, and how whakamā people can be, because there’s an assumption that we all understand our heritage, and, of course, for people in those circumstances, it’s incredibly difficult. 

I’m pleased for you that it’s somewhat resolved. What has it meant to the wider whānau now that there are advances in DNA profiling and that more information is starting to come to light? How do you feel about that? Is it disrespectful to those who raised your mum? Or do you feel that they too would be comfortable with the search?

My mum was hesitant about going down this DNA track because there are always sensitivities in contacting people. But I had this wonderful breakthrough when, trying to identify a close cousin, I identified three brothers in this line.

I Facebook-stalked the children of each of these tūpuna and managed to track down one of my mother’s cousins, or potential half-brother. I went down to Taranaki to meet him. And I said: “Look, I’m not sure how we’re related, but somewhere along the line, we’re whānau.”

He had open arms and was incredibly welcoming. And he said: “The more whānau, the better.”

He agreed to do the DNA test, and when I rang my mum, after we got the results, I was able to say: “Mum, I think I’ve found your brother.” She was excited, and then she became tearful. It’s been a long and difficult journey, but I’m now planning to take my mum down to meet her brother — and a whole bunch of other whānau.

Let’s turn now to Moerewa and to how you came to take the academic path that you chose.

Well, I was a child of the early ‘70s when Moerewa was thriving. We had the freezing works and the cheese factory — and the town was a busy, productive, fun place for us kids to grow up in.

And, when people give Moerewa a hard time, I think: “Hey, you didn’t grow up there.” It was, in fact, a small, close-knit community. Everyone was Aunty and Uncle. And we roamed around, ate loquats out of our neighbours’ trees, and jumped off waterfalls and so on.

It wasn’t seen as a dangerous place when I was young. I guess it changed in the ‘80s when some of the industries started to wind down. And now, while there’s still a freezing works in Moerewa, it’s much smaller than it used to be. So, a lot of whānau went from having secure mahi to then having to deal with poverty. I guess that’s when I started to notice that there were differences.

We all grew up pretty poor in Moerewa, but we all shared, eh? My dad was a fisherman, and my mum worked as a secretary. My dad would give people fish, including crayfish, and we’d all share. And the people at the freezing works all traded meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. We always had enough kai.

Waiting for the first day of school, at her family’s homestead in Moerewa. (Photo supplied)

I went to Otiria Primary School, which no longer exists. It’s now a kura kaupapa. Then, I went to Bay of Islands College in Kawakawa. At that stage, I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t know anyone who’d gone to university. But I clearly remember my school guidance counsellor saying: “You know, TC, you’ve got such good social skills. You’d make a lovely hairdresser.”

I probably would’ve made a lovely hairdresser, but the reality was that, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there weren’t high academic expectations for Māori kids — especially if you grew up in Moerewa.

But I remember our incredible art teacher, Mrs Maureen Woodcock, who took us on an art trip to Auckland. This was in the ‘80s, and, after the art exhibition, she asked if we should walk up to the university and have a look around.

I was like: “Will they let us in?” She looked at me, really puzzled, and asked: “What do you mean?” I said: “Well, will they let us into the university?” I didn’t know what the university was, but I did know that it wasn’t for people like me. Anyway, she said: “Come on, then. Let’s all go up to the university.”

So that’s what we did. And we were hanging out where there were lots of students, lots of big hair and lots of cannabis floating through the air. And the teacher said: “See, Terryann? This is a university.”

I remember looking at her and saying: “They don’t look that smart.” She laughed and said: “Yeah. You could go to university. You could totally go to university.”

That was the first time anyone had ever said that to me. So, I did Bursary, but I was never a typically super-smart kid.

In School C, where you had to get 250 to pass, I got exactly 250. I made it. I got through Bursary as well, and then I applied to art school, and for teaching, and for nursing. And I got into all of them. Mum said: “I think you should do nursing. You’re going to make money out of that.” So, even though I wanted to be an artist, I did nursing.

Terryann graduating in nursing at Manukau Institute of Technology in 1992. (Photo supplied)

It’s been an incredible career — and I’ve loved having so many opportunities.  I went to MIT (Manukau Tech in Ōtara). Everyone’s always in a rush to get out of their hometown, eh? I was anyway. I wanted to go and see the big city. So, I moved to Auckland, and got a shock, because it didn’t operate the way that it did in Moerewa. But I had a fabulous time.

Then, in the early 1990s, there was an excess of nurses, and there weren’t many jobs. But I landed one as a Māori community health worker, with Waireti Walters in Glen Innes. She was a force, and terrifying, but she taught me heaps about working in Māori communities and was an incredible mentor.

Then, I worked at Auckland Sexual Health Services. I reckon that, if you can talk to young people about sex and sexuality, you can talk to them about everything. A wonderful foundation.

I helped set up the Auckland Peer Sexuality Support programme with colleagues from Family Planning which is still going. And then I helped set up the Centre for Youth Health in the Counties Manukau District Health Board with Dr Peter Watson and Emma Goessi. That’s where I saw that, if you really wanted to make a difference, you had to look “upstream”.

Peter Watson was one of my mentors, and he said: “TC, you need to go back to university.” I remember thinking: “Why? Who wants to be an academic?” But I did a master’s degree in public health anyway.

Then, I went to a conference in LA, and that led on to me doing a PhD and a fellowship (in adolescent health) at the University of Minnesota. All I knew about Minnesota was that it snowed and was cold in winter — and that Prince came from there. I was a massive Prince fan.    

PhD graduation, University of Minnesota, US, in 2008. (Photo supplied)

Now, as you’ve advanced in your career, it’s clear that you’ve taken the role of mentor to others very seriously. 

What I hope is that I’m creating a safe place for Māori in academia, because that world can be tough, brutal, and lonely. Apart from people like Irihapeti Ramsden, Papaarangi Reid, Sue Crengle, and Rawiri Wharemate, I often felt alone in doing the mahi that I was doing.

I had wonderful non-Māori mentors, though, and I’ll always be grateful for their leadership and support as well. But, yeah, not many Māori in the early days. So, whenever I see Māori who are keen on research or nursing or health careers, I feel like taking them under my wing. To protect them from the systemic pressures, and to nurture them. To try give them lots of opportunities. And, I hope, to provide a safe place for them to develop.

I’ve made mistakes, but as wahine Māori, I’m keen on creating a future Māori research workforce that fosters the highest quality research, is ethical, collaborative and works towards mana motuhake — more self-determined and aspirational futures for our people.

I know you don’t work exclusively with Māori, but you do take a strong, longtime interest in adolescence and rangatahi health. What are some of the pressures that they have to endure? Is there a lot of difference from perhaps when you or I were young people? 

Our young people now have way more pressure than we had when we were teenagers. The mistakes we made when we were young weren’t captured on social media, on phones, on digital devices. So, we could make mistakes, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and carry on.

But these days there can be very public shaming of young people. And often there’s such public vitriol for those who have differing views — and that’s especially difficult for our taitamariki, our young people, to negotiate, especially the nasty impacts of racism. That kind of behaviour affects our collective mental health, especially when you’re young. It can be devastating believing that the world hates you.

I also think that life is difficult right now for everyone. But imagine growing up not knowing what the future holds, with the climate crisis and seeing all these natural disasters throughout Aotearoa, all these crazy weather events. It’s important for us to be good stewards of the whenua, and make sure that we’re handing over a better world than what we inherited — and we’re not doing that.

StilI, I feel hopeful that, while this next generation are having a tough time, they’re fighters, and they care. And it’s important for those of us who work in healthcare to be staunch advocates for our children and our young people, because they are our future. If we don’t care for them now, if we don’t provide opportunities for them to thrive, protect them from negative and toxic environments — then we’re going to have a very sad, angry generation of young people.

What would you say of the role of cultural pride, confidence with the reo, and advancing tools for sound development through those vulnerable adolescent years?

This is where the gold is. I’ve been part of the Youth2000 national youth health survey for over 20 years. I’ve co-led the last two waves of data collection in secondary schools throughout New Zealand. And we know that a strong sense of identity and cultural pride, and being able to speak te reo Māori, are associated with better mental health outcomes and better outcomes in a number of different areas.

We’ve looked at the impact, for instance, of cultural identity and whanaungatanga on young people’s wellbeing — and, of course, it works. Young people who’ve had a strong sense of identity are much less likely to have mental health concerns, are more likely to feel optimistic about their futures, and are more likely to feel more connected and supported.

However, being proud of who you are when you live in a world that doesn’t value you, is very difficult. When we look at the impact of racism and discrimination in the statistics, we can see how damaging it is to our tamariki Māori, if they’re trying to be proud of who they are, and yet society is telling them that they’re bad, dumb, stupid, and not worthy.

We’ve got data to back up that being Māori, being proud, having a strong sense of identity, being connected to whānau, and having whānau whanui — a big extended family — is incredibly important for our children’s wellbeing.

The digital world isn’t something I grew up in, but it’s everywhere, isn’t it? Are our young people in better circumstances because of the digital reality of modern life, or does it have a significant downside?

I think it’s a mixed bag. The latest literature sort of says that a lot of people try to blame poor mental health on the internet and social media.

What the evidence so far is saying is that, yes, there are young people who have a problem, and it can be addictive. But it acts more like an amplifier. If young people are having a tough time, they seek out content associated with people having tough times, and they find more and more negative content, reinforcing their poor mental health.

Young people who are doing okay and are thriving at kura will see some of that negative content, and just move on — and it doesn’t affect them. But for young people who are feeling vulnerable or insecure, or who have a lot of trauma, that digital content can amplify their distress, their angst, their fears and their anxieties.

So, we should be careful as whānau to make sure that we allow our young people to stay connected with their friends, because there are advantages from staying connected. This is how many young people socialise. It’s how they keep in touch with their friends, and it can be a joyful connecting place. It can also provide really useful supports and information.

But it also can be a violent, negative, racist and exploitive place for people to inhabit. So it’s important to keep an eye on it and to have explicit conversations with our tamariki about how to negotiate the tikanga of that space with respect and dignity. And we need to be talking to our tamariki, too, about things like sexting and nudes, and how to manage these things, especially when relationships turn ugly — how do they protect themselves?

This isn’t stuff that my generation had to deal with, but we have to have explicit conversations with our tamariki now. I think we’ll get better at it, but it’s a new phenomenon, and most of us are still figuring out how to do this well, and how to do it better.

One of the difficult findings from our research with rangatahi Māori was that, when things did get tough, they often didn’t want to worry their parents. They knew that often their whānau were having a difficult time just surviving. And, because they didn’t want to add to their burdens, they weren’t talking to their whānau. When whānau found this out, they were like: “Don’t be silly. Of course, we want to know if you’re having a tough time.”

I think our young people see how busy we are, and they feel that maybe their issues aren’t important. So, they try to deal with them by themselves. That makes me sad, because we want the best for our babies, but they’re trying to protect us. Ultimately, if our tamariki find it difficult to talk to us, we also have to ensure they have other options for support including trusted other adults like their friends’ parents, coaches and mentors.

Terryann and team receiving a Research Impact Award in 2022. Their work, surveying the health and wellbeing of 36,000 teenagers, will help drive change in policies affecting the health of young people. From left: Lovely Dizon, Pat Bullen, Terryann, Alex, Roshini Peiris-John. (Photo supplied)

We also have an obligation to teach resilience. I touch on this because there seems to be a climate where we have an expectation to literally be happy all the time, and that’s unrealistic, isn’t it? Life’s not hunky-dory all the way.

You’re right. We expect to have these constantly happy lives when that’s not the reality, particularly if you’re poor. Māori are disproportionally affected by material and housing deprivation, and food insecurity and all these things. How on earth are you supposed to be happy all the time when you can’t even get your basic needs met?   

I’m incredibly proud of the mahi we’ve done in the Adolescent Health Research Group highlighting the insidious effects of poverty, of housing deprivation, of food security, and period poverty, on the wellbeing of taitamariki. This research has really made a difference. It’s changing policy and practice.

As an academic and a researcher, you’re often talking about the politics of health, the funding shortfalls, the approaches that could be improved. So, in some ways, you’re a political voice, as well as an academic voice. Does that sit okay with you?

That’s been a slightly uncomfortable place for me to inhabit, but I knew it was time to step up. I’ve had some good mentors over the years, like Waireti Walters who was always fierce in fighting for change and saying stuff that often wasn’t easy. Mentors who I saw using their voices to make a difference, even if it made people uncomfortable. You watch, you learn.

So, now I use my privilege and my strengths as an academic, as a professor, as a nurse, as a māmā, as a wahine Māori with a disability, to provide and amplify evidence on things that are important.

I feel it’s incumbent on me to find the best way I can to use my profile for that work. Most people call me TC, but I’ll use my professor or Dr title when I need to — and get whatever leverage I can to improve the health and rights of our tamariki.

One of the “powers” of being an academic is that you know how to use data, and how to write, and I believe we should leverage those powers to be public advocates for important issues.

In particular, I’m using my voice to highlight the realities of child health and youth mental health. I have a new role as the Cure Kids professorial chair in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. I’m incredibly grateful to Cure Kids who actively want to invest in research to find innovative solutions to prevent and address this emerging youth mental health crisis.

There’s no questioning the commitment of you and your colleagues. But is there something else that you draw strength from that helps you get up for the fight each day?

Those things kind of get pushed aside, but this year I joined a little singing group. I had a really big life lesson in looking after myself when I was doing my PhD in the United States. I was in a serious car accident, which resulted in me having my leg amputated. I used to do lots of walking to support my mental health, but I had to find different ways to experience joy. Creativity, arts, music. And this little singing group is making me very happy at the moment.

I also love swimming, and that’s great for my mental health. I love getting in the moana, and kind of washing off all the sadness and frustration and tiredness, and all the other things that come with life.

And I’ve had another activity. When I was in Minnesota, I took up dog-sledding. Now, how many Māori women do you know who’ve done dog-sledding?

None, as a matter of fact.

Terryann (standing) and her friend Kathleen Anderson — this was her first dog sled run with one leg. (Photo supplied)

I decided I could be really miserable there in the winter, and hate the snow, or I could get out and totally embrace it. I had this wonderful crew of dog-sledders, and we’d go out on these little trails through the forest, watch the animals, and do dog-sledding races. I was talking to one of my friends recently in Minnesota, and I was like: “Gosh, I can feel a dog-sledding adventure coming up soon. I’d better get myself a bit fitter, so I can do that again.”

Mush. Is that the word?

Yeah, dog-mushing. It’s fun. After I had my car accident in the United States, I was mokemoke. Really miserable, and depressed. And I was a million miles away from whānau and home, and one of my dog-sledding mates goes: “Hey TC. Let’s go dog-sledding. You can just jump on the sled and come for a ride with us.”

I didn’t have my prosthetic leg then. But I thought: Yeah, I’ll come for a ride.  And it was fantastic. Then, halfway around the track that we were running, my mate says: “TC, I reckon you could do this.” I was like: “What?” With a dog-sled, you have to have one leg on the sled, and one leg that you use for braking. I said: “I won’t be able to brake.” She laughed and said: “You never braked anyway — you were always a bit of a hoon. I’m sure you can do this.”

So, she jumped on the front, I stood up on the dog-sled, and we did the trail. I remember going around this corner, and thinking: “Oh, my gosh, we’re going to smash any second.” But, although it lifted up a bit, we both managed to stay on the trail and keep going.

I remember it was a beautiful, crisp, cold, sunny day, and we were hurtling through the forest. The dogs were running, and I remember crying, because I thought: “Okay, even though I’m sad and disabled, I can still do life. I knew I was going to be okay.”

So, yeah. Dog-sledding was pretty healing for me.

By coincidence, my phone is sitting on Tawera Nikau’s book Standing Tall, and he’s on the front cover with his prosthetic. That’s just by coincidence, because I’ve been reading that over the last little while. It’s over 20 years since his accident. Wonderful rugby league player. Wonderful character, Tawera — if you ever wanted to talk about life after legs. But thank you for sharing that kōrero, and thank you for all the mahi you’ve been doing. 

As I said, I’m a pāpā — a grandad, now. There’s nothing more important in life to me than the welfare of those who are following in our footsteps — and, Terryann, you’ve been a champion for our young people for a long time. It’s been a privilege to be talking with you. Thanks so much for sharing some kōrero with E-Tangata.

Kia ora, Dale.

Terryann and her mother Jo at the urupā in Pakanae where her father is buried — just after returning from Minnesota and the car accident that resulted in her leg being amputated. (Photo supplied)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

For more information on child health, see also the recently launched report on the State of Child Health in Aotearoa New Zealand produced by Cure Kids, which Terryann chairs.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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