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Being the change

Sunny Collings banner

Being the change

An abiding curiosity and longstanding commitments to diversity and multidisciplinary views continue to motivate University of Otago, Wellington Dean Professor Sunny Collings.

While Sunny Collings was doing her postgraduate clinical training in psychiatry in London in the late 1980s, she had the chance to do a research fellowship with Professor Michael King at the Royal Free Hospital about the eating disorder bulimia nervosa. That was her first scientific paper and she found she “really, really” enjoyed the research.

“I’m a very curious person. That’s what drives my work and why I became a researcher," says Professor Collings. "I’m particularly curious about things that don’t fit existing silos of knowledge – what is happening in the grey areas; on the edges of disciplines, social, cultural and clinical practices. That has driven a lot of my research and is a binding theme in my life.”

Since that time, Collings has published on a wide range of topics, from food security to ethics and authorship issues, with many focused on suicide, self-harm and mental health in primary care.

Now the Dean and Head of Campus of the University of Otago, Wellington (UOW) and Deputy Dean of the Otago Medical School, Collings is a consultant psychiatrist and director of the Suicide and Mental Health Research Group / Te Rōpū Rangahau i te Mate Whakamomori me te Hauora Hinengaro, a multidisciplinary team of researchers and clinicians in suicide prevention, mental health and illness.

Although it appears a demanding portfolio of roles, Collings says she likes having such a varied job and sees the roles as complementary to each other.

“My workload is actually comparable to that of many senior clinical academics at the University of Otago. It’s a privilege to be the Dean at UOW. I see it as a leadership and stewardship role – doing what I can do to enhance and shape the future of the University of Otago in Wellington.”

The UOW campus hosts around 300 undergraduate medical students (in their 4th-, 5th- and 6th-years of training) each year, and New Zealand’s only Radiation Therapy undergraduate degree. In addition, there are about 350 research, clinical and teaching staff in nine health science departments, and more than 21 different research groups with nearly 700 postgraduate students.

Collings has worked at UOW in joint academic and clinical roles for 25 years. First appointed Dean and Head of Campus in February 2011, she is now into her second five-year term. The high-level commitment to the Dean’s role means her personal research strategy is now “about mentoring others and sustaining a balanced research team”.

“I still like to be learning something I don’t know about and to be stretched, otherwise I get bored. I’m not sure if this is generally a prerequisite for research, but it is for me. Feeling intellectually extended is my happy place,” she says.

Her research career began while she was doing her postgraduate training in London: she decided she “wanted to have a go at it” and got the six-month research fellowship with Professor King. Once she’d qualified as a psychiatric consultant she then questioned whether that was what she wanted to do for the rest of her working career and decided to take the path of academia instead – “a perfect mix for me of research and clinical work”.

“Also, at that time, I was pregnant and we knew it would be tough in the UK with a young family and no support, so we returned to New Zealand.” Collings was appointed senior lecturer in Psychological Medicine at UOW in 1991.

Now as Dean, she works to foster collaborative research between departments.

“Co-supervision of PhD students can help, as it generates naturally occurring research collaboration between staff.” For example, Denise Steers, whose PhD is being co-supervised by Collings and paediatric endocrinologist Associate Professor Esko Wiltshire, is researching what happens in clinical decision-making for infants born with intersex conditions.

“We came to it because we are interested especially in the mental health consequences for people down the track. This way you get a real cross-pollination of disciplines. This is a fascinating area, full of complexity and controversy.

“A spin-off of this project has led to me considering our commitment to diversity at UOW in a different way. It’s re-energised a commitment I’ve always had, for example, to gender equality. Originally I’d thought I could make the most difference by simply being a senior woman in academic medicine, when there used to be so few.” When Collings was a student there was only one woman professor in the whole of the Otago Medical School.

“As humans we tend to group things into boxes, but I’ve always been interested in people who sit outside the boxes or on the margins, both in my research and in human social phenomena. For example, in my clinical work, I see people with personality disorders who are often seen as not ‘conforming’ to straightforward diagnoses."

“Now I try to work on the things that only a Dean can do and let others take on different roles in the team. Giving voice to diversity is important to me: we need to have diversity where there is influence.”

Collings says her Suicide and Mental Health Research Group is a fantastic team of staff and students doing important work. With suicide being one of the leading causes of death in New Zealand, research and interventions to tackle mental health issues are becoming more urgent than ever, she says. They have a steady stream of PhD enquiries and currently have about six doctoral students. Recent student topics have included: clinician treatment of suicidal patients, cyber-bullying, Pacific mental health services, men’s mental health and self-harm attendance in emergency departments.

“For our team, I deliberately wanted to have a second-in-charge who comes from a different discipline. Our deputy director, Dr Gabrielle Jenkin, is a social scientist with a whole different framework for looking at the world: she thinks about social systems and power relationships, whereas I am more embedded in the world of psychiatry.

“We are lucky – she is an outstanding deputy, managing the group’s work day to day and we come in with new ideas and approaches and spot different opportunities. Our different backgrounds generate fertile ideas.

“You can’t solve the big issues and problems if you have people who all have the same experience and think the same way. There’s increasing evidence of that: for example, the National Science Challenges have collaborative teams of people from all sorts of backgrounds trying to solve the big science issues."

“I am very proud that Dr Jenkin has recently been awarded a Marsden Fast-Start grant to investigate acute mental health units from a design point of view.”

Recent research from the team has looked into suicide investigations by New Zealand coroners and studied the feasibility of formal review of suicide deaths, the latter funded by the Health Quality and Safety Commission on behalf of the Ministry of Health.

“We’re currently working on some papers in the area of suicide in the media and, particularly, pertaining to social media. It’s important to get media reporting on suicide right as it can influence vulnerable people and careful coverage is probably helpful. That’s a fine balance,” Collings says.

“I have always been very interested in multidisciplinary approaches. Our team has such a variety of backgrounds and research interests and that’s what excites me about this research and keeps me going with it, even while juggling the other roles. The different perspectives of my team give me new ideas and eventually we’ll find new solutions together.

“I do have to be strategic about the research. It’s not possible to run a very large group so we focus on medium-sized external contracts and our PhD students. Research students are important contributors to the group. In the last five years, publications have focused on suicide and self-harm, and management of mental health care in primary care.”

A current campus-wide project that Collings is championing is the UOW Korowai project. A special Korowai, or traditional Māori cloak, is being woven to reflect the significant relationship between UOW and mana whenua – and MoU partner for Wellington – Ngāti Toa Rangatira.

“The Korowai takes the place of the academic gown or can be worn over the top as a symbolic gesture that unites us with our mana whenua. We’ll wear it at ceremonies such as our Student Awards Ceremony / Hui Whakanui Tauira and our Inaugural Professorial Lectures. When not in use it will be displayed securely as a work of art on the Wellington campus.

“This is symbolic and important for us. We were very proud last year to have our largest number of Māori doctors [19] graduating from UOW out of a record total of 45 from the University of Otago.”

Collings recognises that her position of influence as Dean brings a real opportunity to “be the change you want to see”, and just being present as a woman and permissive in a senior role is insufficient.

“You need to actively change things and most management decisions have the potential to move towards a diverse or more inclusive direction. Diversity among decision-makers and leaders is important, because we as a society all have a stake in this. It’s an investment in the kind of society we want to create,” she says.

Story: Fleur Templeton
Photo: Michael Roberts