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NZDF psychologist on “The Military Way” for youth

Meet Ricki Tan, the lead Psychologist behind the NZDF’s Youth Development Unit (YDU). Ricki works as a civilian, based at the Base Auckland, home to the Headquarters and Northern Unit of YDU.

29 September, 2023

The YDU runs the six-week Limited Service Volunteer course for people aged between 18 and 24 who are unemployed and not in training.

Mr Tan says the unit’s courses employ a culture of military training: a structured, inclusive and safe environment, great strength-based experiences, good role models, good peer relationships and a sense of belonging. The aim is to provide life skills, motivation, learning, training and vocational options that will allow youth to confidently and successfully establish their place within and contribute to New Zealand society.

Originally from Malaysia, Mr Tan is a registered psychologist who has lived in New Zealand for over 40 years. He’s worked in Child Protection, Youth Justice, Youth Forensic Mental Health and Corrections before coming to the Youth Development Unit, based at Whenuapai Air Force Base, in 2014.

The YDU does not provide treatment programmes, says Mr Tan. “What we know is that for any youth to make a positive transition, to develop well, they need certain basic needs met, and they need to develop mastery in certain areas of competency. These are life skills, relationship skills, problem-solving, managing their mood, and developing impulse control. And you need to put them in an environment that’s conducive to teaching these skills, where there’s structure, a place of routine and predictability, with role models around.

“A military environment fits a lot of those characteristics. Some may not want to join the military, but it’s the environment that can be effective, where we can develop these skills and enhance their journey into adult life.”

It’s not a course for everyone. “We do a lot of screening of applications, and some people are simply not ready for it. It could do more harm than good. Some people have spent their whole lives under certain circumstances, with very entrenched coping mechanisms that have kept them safe. They aren’t going to just change the way they do things, saying Yes staff, no staff, just like that.”

The course was developed and run in partnership with the Ministry of Social Development. It’s a set curriculum and the ultimate aim is to help people get a job, or engage in other vocational training.

“This isn’t a programme of intervention. We work with them in such a way to make changes in social and psychological behaviour, to decrease their risk factors. We want them to have better skills to cope with things in life. People leave the course with a support plan that works on addressing other areas of concern.”

Not everyone is a struggling youngster. In fact, they aim for a ratio of over 60 percent of trainees who are not “heightened risk applicants”, meaning young people without histories of mental health difficulties or harmful behaviours such as offending. “Among these are university graduates, musicians and athletes and aspiring military recruits.”

He says over the years, many trainees who graduated from LSV go on to become successful applicants to the New Zealand Defence Force. “I’m aware of some who have become highly accomplished in their undertakings at NZDF.”

Something he really enjoys is training the staff. “You definitely need people that are a good fit to become a Youth Development Specialist. We’re looking for people who have consistency with the NZDF values, who are non-judgemental, self-aware, who have empathy and compassion for those who haven’t had a good start in life. We want people to see the big picture, to understand a trainee’s experiences.”

They need to be adaptable, he says. “One size doesn’t fit all. Training programmes and activities need to be tailored in some instances to match the particular characteristics and personal attributes of trainees in order to achieve the outcomes.” 

Staff undergo 10 days of basic training, followed by on-the-job training to qualify as a Youth Development Specialist. “It’s quite intensive. We do a lot of scenario exercises, all based on real profiles and on critical incidents that have occurred. We make it as realistic as possible.” Sergeant equivalent and upwards can go on to advanced training.

The work can be challenging for staff. “It’s not just about dealing with isolated incidents. They are constantly engaging with people who may have high complex needs. Some of them might talk about trauma they may have had. Our staff have a basic awareness of mental health and mental health issues prevalent in our society. We have reflective practice, debriefings and we have an amazing Base Support Team of psychologists, social worker and a padre, ready to support our staff.”

What drives him to succeed in this work? “I wouldn’t give you a standard answer, like contributing to society etc. For me, what I like about what I do, is being a psychological advisor and developing the overview of how best we can deliver a strategic programme, based on literature. People think we’re boot camps but they don’t understand. We have a knowledge base that’s literature-informed. We say, okay, from what we’re seeing, from what we know, we need to take a certain direction. Not just to mitigate risk, but to enhance what we do. That’s what I really enjoy.”

Mr Tan says he’s glad he’s found his way to Defence, after working for a number of government agencies. “It’s an organisation that really looks after people.”