Nat and Nutmeg’s successful chemistry

Dr Nat Výborná shares her story to show that, even in the demanding world of scientific research, mental illness need not be a barrier to success.

Dr Nat Výborná and assistance dog Nutmeg.
Dr Nat Výborná and assistance dog Nutmeg.

Nutmeg, a frisky black-and-white rescue puppy, shares an office with Dr Nat Výborná in the School of Chemical Sciences, and is a popular member of the school’s social club.

At ten months old, Nutmeg is still in training for her job as an agoraphobia assistance dog who can also perform “tactile grounding” by putting bodyweight, such as a paw, on Nat in the event of a panic attack.

Nat is speaking publicly about Nutmeg because she wants to destigmatise conversations about mental health.

“I would love talking about mental health to be normalised because it literally contributes to productivity. It is just as important as physical health.”

Nutmeg as a puppy.
Nutmeg's early days sharing Nat's office in the School of Chemistry.

It all started after Nat’s mental health spiralled into a crisis during the lengthy Covid-19 lockdown in early 2020.

As a senior research technician, Nat is an essential worker, and had to come into University.

As well as agoraphobia, Nat has post-traumatic stress disorder.

During lockdown, her usual transportation choice – walking – triggered her anxiety. Nat felt able to negotiate the city walk only during the quiet hours of the early morning and late at night.

After three months of solitude and a substantial decline in her mental state, she realised she needed to get some help.

With the support of her doctor and managers, it was agreed the best step for Nat would be to get a service dog. Nat’s first service dog had died a year earlier.

It was complicated working through the health and safety approvals needed to bring an assistance dog onto campus. However, Nat says her managers, colleagues and the Equity Office Te Ara Tautika were understanding and helpful.

Cathie Walsh, Staff Equity Manager, went out of her way to help, negotiating “reasonable accommodations” and offering guidance through the legal, health and safety requirements, Nat says.

As hoped, Nutmeg has helped Nat cope with the challenges of walking outside, which has benefited all aspects of her life.

“It is almost as if I am able to reach some sort of ‘normal’ baseline and concentrate on things other than my anxiety and disability.

“Rather than thinking that, in three hours, I am going to have to walk somewhere, I can think about work."

The amount of energy that’s suddenly available to me is incredible.

Nat Výborná School of Chemistry senior research technician

Nat and Nutmeg
Nutmeg gives Nat a purpose for her walks.

Nat also enjoys seeing other people benefit from interacting with Nutmeg, who goes on meet-and-greets in Orientation Week and just before exams, relieving students’ anxiety.

Nutmeg also has her own Facebook page, where students can request appointments via private messages.

Nat is pleased she and Nutmeg are available to console distressed students, especially women who are already in the minority in Science and often feel wary of admitting they are struggling.

Nat wants her story to show that with the right support, mental health need not be an obstacle to success, even in the demanding field of scientific research.

It is an added benefit that Nat’s support is of the adorable four-legged variety, lifting the spirits of everyone she meets.

Mental Health crisis teams:

Wellsford to North Shore: 09 486 8900

North Shore 09 487 1414

Henderson 09 822 8601

Auckland Central 0800 800 717

Counties Manukau 09 261 3700

Need to Talk?: NZ’s national mental health and
addiction helpline – free call or text 1737.

Free support for University staff

Employee Assistance Programme.