NACCHO Mental Health Week : Time for a new deal on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health

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“The National Mental Health Commission Review into mental health, released in April, called for Indigenous mental health to be made a national priority with a new ‘Closing the Gap’ mental health target and yet nearly four months later there doesn’t appear to be any progress,

“We also urgently need for our mental health and alcohol and other drugs services to be under the auspices of the Federal Department of Health rather than being separated into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet where it currently is.

This illogical separation makes coordination of health services more difficult; it is an entirely avoidable obstacle to success and the new Turnbull Government must reverse it,”

QAIHC CEO (and NACCHO Chair) , Matt Cooke, said that there were immediate steps that Governments should take to improve the effectiveness of mental health services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples (see QAIHC full press release below )

The healing potential of wild landscapes is being used to counter the devastating impact of the history of colonisation on Indigenous mental health in the Kimberley.

FROM THE ABC Kimberley

It may look like a simple fishing trip in the vast landscape around west Kimberley’s Fitzroy River.

But the four-wheel-drive trailing a plume of dust across the seemingly endless mudflat is at the forefront of a progressive mental health initiative running out of the small town of Derby.

For four years, Aboriginal mental health worker James Howard has tackled some of Australia’s worst mental health statistics by going bush and building relationships with other Indigenous men.

“Just with my men I’ve been taking out, I’ve seen them get a bit of confidence in talking with other people,” he said.

Each week the Derby men’s mental health group goes bush for the day, cleaning up popular fishing destinations, wetting a line and enjoying the therapeutic benefits of the country.

Mr Howard leads the group with gentle, unassuming wisdom and a legendary ability with a throw-net and fishing line.

While he loves the celebrations that follow the catching of metre-long barramundi, Mr Howard prizes the impact the group has had on its members above all else.

In particular he remembers a member of the group who taught him what was really happening when they went bush.

“I think it’s the ultimate success the group can have, is after three months he told me, ‘I won’t be able to come out next week because I’m doing a computer course at TAFE’,” Mr Howard recalled.

“Ever since then I’ve seen it as not just taking them fishing, I’ve seen it as something that could be greater, and could give them a kick-start.”

But just having Indigenous men join the group is a big step in providing support.

“Another benefit is even coming into the mental health office; they’ve got that connection there,” Mr Howard said.

“I’m probably not seen as a mental health nurse or a caseworker, I’m seen as James.”

Culture and colonisation in Indigenous mental health

It’s exactly what has been missing from mental health services for Indigenous people, according to psychologist and national mental health commissioner, Professor Pat Dudgeon.

Professor Pat Dudgeon

“Often Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are presenting at emergency departments with severe mental health problems, rather than engaging in services early and getting treatment in a preventative way,” she said.

Dr Dudgeon said mental health services had failed to reach many Indigenous people because they had not been culturally appropriate or locally controlled.

“No matter where the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander group are, there is cultural difference,” she said.

“A lot of people forget about that and they think that the same method, or program, or treatment can be used for mainstream and then for Indigenous groups.”

As well as cultural differences, Dr Dudgeon said understanding the pervasive role of history was essential to improving Indigenous mental health.

“There has been a dreadful history of colonisation. People have been removed from location, they’ve had their culture denigrated, children have been stolen off families,” she said.

Although Australia’s colonisation was historical, Dr Dudgeon said it was an overarching force in contemporary Indigenous mental health.

“We’ve got all the statistics on that about poverty, lack of employment, education, etcetera etcetera; they’re still those consequences of colonisation,” she said.

The therapeutic benefits of country

Chris is one of the Derby men’s mental health group’s success stories.

When he first joined the bush trips, he was struggling to cope with severe schizophrenia, exacerbated by alcohol abuse.

“I was really bad. I had to spend a couple of times in a mental institution,” he said.

Over three-and-a-half years, the combination of the bond he formed with Mr Howard and the healing influence of the wild landscapes have transformed Chris.

“You think real hard, and when you think too hard you get paranoid. So coming out here with James, that takes that all away,” he said.

“It helps you to relax, like switch your mind off, and all you’ve got to do is have patience now and wait for the barra to bite.”

Over time, Chris has learnt how to transfer the peace of mind found in the bush to other parts of his life.

“When you go home, it’s back there, but you reflect on the day that you had and things are sweet,” he said.

It’s an experience that has given Chris some power over his mental illness, and optimism for his future.

“I suffer from schizophrenia, but I don’t let that word get to me,” he said.

“It’s still with me, but I’m slowly getting out of it.”

QAIHC Press Release

Time for a new deal on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health

Queensland’s Aboriginal and Islander community-controlled health organisations have called for greater coordination in the funding and delivery of mental health services.

At the start of Mental Health Week, the sector’s peak body, QAIHC, said today that the particular and unique circumstances faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples required a unique approach to improving mental illness.

QAIHC CEO, Matt Cooke, said that there were immediate steps that Governments should take to improve the effectiveness of mental health services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples.

“The National Mental Health Commission Review into mental health, released in April, called for Indigenous mental health to be made a national priority with a new ‘Closing the Gap’ mental health target and yet nearly four months later there doesn’t appear to be any progress,” said Mr Cooke.

“We also urgently need for our mental health and alcohol and other drugs services to be under the auspices of the Federal Department of Health rather than being separated into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet where it currently is.

“This illogical separation makes coordination of health services more difficult; it is an entirely avoidable obstacle to success and the new Turnbull Government must reverse it,” Mr Cooke said.

“The continuing high rates of self-harm, suicide, incarceration and substance misuse among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are indicators that much more needs to be done and we just don’t have the luxury of time; changes are needed right now.”

Mr Cooke also called for greater investment into workforce training to create a new cohort of Aboriginal and Islander mental health workers and counsellors.

“Much more work is needed to open pathways to university degrees in psychology and psychiatry for Aboriginal and Islander people.

“There are currently only about 80 Indigenous psychologists in the country and we need about six hundred if want to achieve parity with the population. We need trained mental health workers in every one of Queensland’s 24 community-controlled health services to begin tackling the heartache of suicide and self-harm in particular,” he said.

Mr Cooke said that there are many examples of extremely successful community-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health initiatives in drug rehabilitation, suicide prevention and other mental health related challenges.

“Initiatives such as the QAIHC ‘Lighting the Dark’ Suicide Prevention Program which was delivered across 10 communities in Queensland have been well received by community as an effective means of addressing suicide.

“QAIHC is partnering with St Johns to roll out Aboriginal Mental Health First Aid across our community controlled health services; increasing individual awareness of the risk factors and providing them with skills in working with individuals who are experiencing social, emotional wellbeing, mental illness or suicidal ideation. These initiatives will save lives,” said Mr Cooke.

He also referred to the National Empowerment Project currently underway in Kuranda and Cherbourg as another example of a holistic approach using culture and spirituality to empower local people and reduce the terrible burden of mental illness.

“What we truly need from Governments is a better directing of funding and a sensible approach to removing obstacles that stand in the way of community-based solutions,” he concluded.

“We have the will, the intellect and the determination to address the mental health issues in our communities; what are missing are suitable resources and a trained expert Aboriginal workforce to implement innovative programs which empower our people.

“These are the responsibilities of Governments and we remain hopeful they will take up the challenge to support us.”

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