NACCHO Mental Health Week : Aboriginal communities are becoming more comfortable about discussing mental health


The other thing we don’t talk about, which is added on to that as well, and we like to think it’s dead in this country, but it’s not: is racism.

Pangula Mannamurna Aboriginal Health Service chief executive David Copley

Speaking to the ABC

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are becoming more comfortable about discussing mental health, a Mount Gambier health organisation says.

And while the sector struggles to find trained Aboriginal health professionals, Pangula Mannamurna Aboriginal Health Service’s new chief executive, David Copley, says times are changing.

He said communities were no longer as afraid of the stigma of mental health as they were in the past.

“It’s something that we don’t talk about openly as a community and we haven’t in the past but we are getting better at it,” he said.

“The more open it becomes in mainstream, the more open it will become in Aboriginal cultures.”

The Kaurna Peramangk man is the only male Indigenous mental health nurse in South Australia.

He said the health service is better equipped to service the south-east community after a senior social worker recently gained additional qualifications.

This now enables doctors to address mental health referrals to the facility.

“It also gives us somebody who’s aware of the cultural needs, has worked in the area and now has the qualifications to say to mainstream, ‘hey, if you’re having trouble referring, make us a first stop for Aboriginal people, because we have the expertise’.”

Mr Copley said it took a long time to support his staff members through cultural, vocational, mental health and family skills training.

He said despite the lengthy process and red tape, he hoped more of his staff would gain similar qualifications.

“Long-term we would like to see more of our mental health practitioners go through that process and get that experience, those skills, of working with Aboriginal people so we can provide more case management, better client services,” he said.

Cultural issues keep people away from doctors

Mr Copley said many Aboriginal people did not deal with their mental health issues because they had withdrawn from seeing “mainstream” doctors.

David Copley

He said many people were looking for culturally appropriate care from practitioners who understood the causes of mental health issues for Aboriginal people.

“In Mount Gambier, we have a large Stolen Generation, a lot of trans-generational trauma and if you’re a mainstream practitioner that may not be something you’re familiar with,” Mr Copley said.

“We have quite a high percentage of that down here and that is because people were taken from various parts around South Australia and moved to Mount Gambier or to the Coorong, and wound up here, so it’s quite a complex issue.

“The other thing we don’t talk about — which is added on to that as well, and we like to think it’s dead in this country, but it’s not — is racism.”

Mr Copley said Aboriginal health services were essential.

“You’re not judged because most of us who work here have either been down that road ourselves to some degree or have family members in that position,” he said.

More Aboriginal health workers needed

Mr Copley said there was a substantial lack of trained Aboriginal health professionals but he had seen improvement.

Aboriginal liaison officers work to assist young people complete Year 12 and move on to university and Mr Copley said he knew of students looking to enter the health field.

“One who has had a gap year and one who is about to finish Year 12, who are both looking at going to do social work at university here,” he said.

“And another one who is looking at going and doing social work interstate.”

He said Pangula Mannamurna would offer those students support and placements.

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