Jelena Bennett

Continuing the Bennett history of Maori into Psychiatry in New Zealand

Story by Sonya Bloomfield

What took Jelena Bennett down the path of psychiatry was almost pre-ordained for her in some ways.  “My grandfather was a doctor, my aunty is a doctor and they’re actually both psychiatrists.  But I never thought I was going to do psychiatry, I’d always wanted to be a doctor from a really young age but psychiatry is something I fell into later on in my life.”

Jelena grew up in Auckland and her connection with her iwi, Te Arawa in Rotorua, is strong, they often go down for Christmas, tangi, hui and different celebrations. From a large family, her great-grandfather, Bishop Fredrick Augustus Bennett fathered 19 children.   “He was the first Maori Bishop of Aotearoa and he’s buried inside the church of Ohinemutu, down on the Shores of Lake Rotorua.  The whole areas steeped in Bennett history and it’s a very special place for us.”  It’s obvious as she speaks of her family, how much of an impact they have made on her life.  She says she has taken a lot of inspiration from many different members of her whanau as they were all involved in community service of some kind.  “Probably the biggest influence was my grandfather.  He was the first Maori psychiatrist.  There was almost this expectation that I would always go into medicine.  The seed was planted while I was very young, but luckily for me there was a receptive soil.”

Describing her first year at med school is the hardest for Jelena as her nana passed away right before she was due to start exams. “It was very hard for me, because we were very close, but my granddad lived to see me graduate, which was a very proud day for everyone.”  Continuing on with her career, she proceeds to tell me about her internship which she completed after her graduation. “I was really setting myself up for general practice, so I did a diploma in pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology which are good skills for a GP to have.”  

This is where Jelena says her plans changed.  “I got married and then we ended up moving overseas and living abroad for around 5 years.  Both of my children were born overseas and I didn’t have a chance to work because we moved so much; from Sydney to LA to Geneva and then back to Auckland.”  I’m not ashamed to admit that I am slightly envious. It sounds wonderful!  Upon their return to Auckland, Jelena says she got to thinking about her career and what the next steps where for her.  The turning point was when her Aunty, Doctor Pamela Bennett sat her down and said, “I really think you should consider psychiatry.” In her mind everything fell into place. “I thought, gosh, this is what I have been waiting for.  It really made sense to me and that’s when I decided to go back and specialize.  That was about 5 years ago and I’ve been doing that part time.”

Working as a psychiatric registrar for Auckland District Health Board, means that Jelena is a doctor specializing in Psychiatry but still completing her training.  She has one major exam to complete this year before she finishes. “It feels like it’s been quite a long time coming, because I’ve been doing this part time while doing the whole working mum thing.” She works in a community mental health centre as part of a multi disciplinary team of other health professionals.  She sees adults that have been referred usually by their GP’s with major mental illness that also has some aspect of risk or safety issue attached to it.  She assesses, diagnoses and manages the care of those patients.   “I’m on call evenings and weekends, in the emergency department and police cells”.  I comment on how it must get crazy with some of the things she sees in her line of work but she just laughs and says “No two days are the same in my line of work.  You have some crazy days, but it’s all worth it.  It makes me grateful everyday for what I have, a quiet and peaceful life.”  She says this is something that she tries to instill in her children as well, the feeling of gratefulness and positivity.  I ask her how she manages the tough side of the job and she smiles and thinks about it before answering “I love my job and I think it’s all about perspective and not letting the weight of the job invade into your personal life.” She says that at the end of the day, she drives home and her focus is fully on her family.

When I ask her if she will stay with the ADHB when she graduates, she tells me that she would like to be in the public health sector because there is so much need in this area. “There is such a demand for psychiatrists in New Zealand, especially New Zealand trained. In the future I would love to look into helping Maori youth who are experiencing their first episode of psychosis.”  At the moment there is no culturally specialized early episode care for Maori.  “At this stage, it’s just a broad idea but it is gaining momentum. It’s definitely something I need to research more before heading down that track.” 

“Outside of work my priority is my family.  I work part time so that I can try and manage the juggle of working and having time with the kids and husband Mark.  He picks up when I am working shifts but I also couldn’t do what I do without the support of my parents. Their help looking after the kids is immeasurable.  Outside of family time I love spending time with my girlfriends and keeping fit, spin, pilates and walking the dog and of course good food and good wine!”  We both laugh at this and agree whole-heartedly that this is what contributes to a healthy body and healthy mind.

With Jelena's groundedness, caring personality and dedication to making a real difference in people's lives I can only breathe a sigh of relief for all of those parents of the children that Jelena will help in the future.

Jelena Bennett