16 May 2023

Beyond Brave: Dr Kristen Hamling and Michelle McKenzie 

Dr Kristen Hamling is a registered psychologist who has worked with first responders for over twenty years. She completed her PhD in first responder wellbeing. Her research investigated how first responders stay well in a job in which they face complex systemic challenges every day. Kristen was a uniformed member and a psychologist in the Australian Army Reserve and the Australian Defence Force, where she worked for around 10 years. She has worked in private practice for over 15 years and holds contracts with NZ Police, FENZ and St John. Kristen also works with various NGOs to promote trauma-informed wellbeing policies and practices. Kristen is a huge advocate for lived experience and empowering people to tell their story. She’s an Aussie and Kiwi, having moved from Sydney to New Zealand in 2013. She now lives in Whanganui with her two boys and partner. 

Michelle McKenzie is a married mother of two grown sons and Nana of four. She works as an EMT for St John Ambulance NZ and has a total of almost 20 years’ experience as a volunteer and paid officer in events, patient transfer service and frontline ambulance. Michelle holds the stroke pathway portfolio for her local station and has had some good success in helping fine-tune this pathway for better outcomes for these patients. She has recently had her own very personal experience with mental health difficulties. Having worked through this challenge, Michelle has become a huge advocate for colleagues and others around mental wellbeing and has been sharing her story in the hopes of helping others. 

Kristen and Michelle first met after Michelle witnessed a colleague being assaulted in the line of duty. Kristen reflected on how far Michelle has come since beginning her mental wellbeing journey. “Therapy has been really instrumental in helping her (Michelle) to understand why things in her personal life and professional life have affected her the way they have.” 

Karen fondly remembered Michelle arriving at therapy with some level of resistance, having difficulty accepting help as someone who always helps others. Six months into her therapy journey Michelle attended an appointment waving a literal white flag, saying “This is my ‘I shall speak no more of leaving therapy prematurely flag.’ Thanks for your patience with me”. 

Through therapy, Michelle discovered a talent for writing which became an instrumental component of her healing journey. She penned two pieces that were initially intended for peer support but are now widely used as resources by St John’s Ambulance, including ‘Journey to Balance’. For her efforts, Michelle was awarded the St John’s Health, Safety, and Wellbeing Influencer of the Year Award for 2023. She has also been nominated in the mental health category of Safeguard New Zealand’s workplace health and safety awards. 

Michelle first read her piece of work ‘Journey to Balance’ hoping it would help others in their journey. In the opening paragraph, Michelle reflected on being a textbook giver: “Can you pick up an extra shift? Yes. Can you start early? Sure. Can you finish late? Of course. Could you do this transfer? Absolutely. Could you help this family member out? Naturally. Could you help this friend out? Love to. Could you help out this group? How could I not? No was not something I found I could say.” 

After pushing away too many warning signs, Michelle felt she had nothing left to give. On 26 September 2021, Michelle and her husband were driving home from a family visit when she realised she didn’t want to go to work the next day. This was unusual for Michelle, and it was followed by an intense feeling of panic, brought on by witnessing her colleague being assaulted four weeks prior. Michelle was in such a state of panic that she found herself asking two main questions; should she call an ambulance, and would she then have to spend time in a mental health facility? 

Michelle acknowledged that she was not near her limit; she was past her limit, which she admitted was hard and painful to accept. “Putting my hand up asking for and accepting the help that was available, and following the treatment plan, were hands down the best decisions I could have made.” 

Through her therapy sessions with Kristen, Michelle has learned the importance of setting boundaries and limits to protect her mental wellbeing. “Bravery and vulnerability can coexist. Bravery isn’t always about sucking it up; bravery can be speaking up. If you just validate your feelings, it’s not a runaway train; you won’t be there forever. It is come and go, and you have to remind yourself you’re going to be ok, and you can get through this.” 

Watch Kristen and Michelle’s session by clicking here.

Kristen and Michelle
Kristen and Michelle