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Monday 19 December 2022 4:27pm

Matt Jenkins standing in front of a body of water
Dr Matthew Jenkins

Dr Matthew Jenkins is bringing his background in Physical Education and Psychology to his research into helping those living with serious mental illnesses stay physically healthy.

A Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago, Wellington, his latest project is co-designing a healthy lifestyle programme for young people experiencing their first episode of psychosis.

“People with mental illness have a much lower life expectancy compared to the rest of the population, and are at higher risk of developing conditions like obesity and cardiovascular disease,” he explains. “We want to arrest that deterioration because once something like cardiovascular disease really kicks in, it's either very hard to reverse or in some cases is irreversible.”

The project, which is funded by a Lottery Health Research grant and a fellowship from Otago's Division of Health Sciences, will begin with workshops with rangatahi between the ages of 16 and 24 years old, where they'll be asked what health means to them and how they can be supported to stay physically healthy.

“We've got Toi Tangata and the League of Live Illustrators coming in, and as people are talking, their experiences will literally be drawn up on the walls. Having their voices come to life is going to be really powerful.”

The workshops will be followed by sessions with health service providers to see if the support systems that the rangatahi suggest can be feasibly set up within the health services.

“We will work out what we can deliver with the resources that are available and then we will apply for long-term research funding to develop, deliver and evaluate the programme.”

Jenkins has a passion for community engagement, which he brings into his academic career.

“Everything I do starts with how it is going to have a positive impact on the participants, the wider community.”

“Everything I do starts with how it is going to have a positive impact on the participants, the wider community.”

He is a regular volunteer with the Wellington City Mission, not just learning to make scones for their Tā Te Manawa community lounge, but also working with staff in areas where academic research could help their work. Research he led investigating the impact of their physical activity subsidies helped them justify funding for future projects.

“Anecdotes are great, but this is where research can come in. It can flesh out these anecdotes to turn them into evidence, and it makes people listen. It makes policy makers listen, I hope.”

Jenkins, who is originally from the UK, completed a BSc in Psychology at the University of Birmingham and an MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology with distinction at Staffordshire University. He completed his PhD, which was on motivation for physical activity, through Otago's School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences in 2017 and says after a relatively theoretical doctorate, he's determined to do research with real-world impact.

This year, he has been presenting and producing a 12-episode “One in Four” mental health podcast for Wellington Access Radio, which showcases the work of researchers in the Department of Psychological Medicine.

He is also active in supporting other early career researchers, serving on the Division of Health Sciences' Early- and Mid-Career Researcher (EMCR) Group's management committee and as acting postgraduate coordinator for the Wellington Department of Psychological Medicine, providing pastoral care for postgraduate students.

At 40, he sees himself as quite old for an emerging researcher, but is comfortable taking a slow and sustainable approach to academia.

“I want to be a successful researcher, but not at the expense of my own health and wellbeing. I'm on a good path, and one of the reasons that is possible most recently is because of the support I've received from the Department. There are so many opportunities that [Head of Department] Associate Professor Susanna Every-Palmer has helped me to take. It's a growing department, it feels like a really cool place to work. I'm just very grateful.”

Recent awards

  • Division of Health Sciences Postdoctoral Fellowship (2022)
  • Matariki Network of Universities travel grant (2022)
  • University of Otago, Wellington, Emerging Researcher and Best Research awards (2021)


  • Lottery Health Research Grant
  • Otago Division of Health
  • Sciences Fellowship

More stories about early career researchers

This story is part of the research publication 'He Kitenga 2022: Talented Futures', which presents the different pathways into research that early career researchers follow.

Read more 'He Kitenga 2022' research stories

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