Alice Springs is Australia’s red centre and the home of the Aboriginal Arrernte people.

Known to them as Mparn­twe, it’s an incredibly remote town located in the Northern Territory. The closest capital cities, Darwin and Adelaide, are 1500km away. The sheer isolation of Alice Springs makes access to general medical facilities difficult, so mental health specialists are even harder to come by. Rural and Remote Mental Health places strong importance on the cultural competence and awareness of our programs.

We recognise how crucial it is to adapt our materials, message and delivery of workshops to suit race or ethnicity.

We developed our Deadly Thinking and Deadly Thinking Youth programs to reach aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders in a compelling way and address the mental health gap in our first nation’s people. To gain more insight into the needs of Alice Spring’s locals we wanted to speak with someone who is on the ground and working day to day in the area. Kate Bird, Learning and Development Officer, from Casa Services, works closely with the indigenous community providing support services for those with a disability. The conversation helps to identify where mental health services could be applied and evaluate the mental wellness of Aboriginals in Alice Springs.

 

A Casa Services client enjoying jewellery-making as a therapeutic activity. Photo: Casa Services

 

“A significant portion of our clients are indigenous, and we work with their families as well. I am happy to say we work with the indigenous community every day. Cultural competence is very important, as a part of our training curriculum at our organisation, we provide cultural awareness training for all our staff. I think we do the best that we can in our service and train our staff to provide culturally sensitive mental health support where possible, particularly if one of our clients is going through a hard time. As we provide the housing for our indigenous clients in town, we do not get to work out ‘on country’ however our staff have provided assistance for our clients when they visited their home communities of Santa TheresaYuendumu or Ti Tree, ” said Kate.

I know that for our clients having to leave their country to receive support in town can be very isolating and affect their mental health.

There is a lack of services in remote parts of the Northern Territory which means indigenous people must travel long distances to receive treatment or care which can be very difficult for them. This can also affect the youth of these communities because they do not want to leave their country, family or support network to seek higher education or work. This can lead to a feeling of despondency for the kids. It’s natural when you’re young to get out and try new things.

One thing I have noticed is that Indigenous people want indigenous health care and access to their own traditional healers (Ngangkari) or bush medicine. In central Australia, indigenous people will seek out two lines of traditional medicine before they will turn to the government health system, if they seek government health at all. While I have a qualification in this field, I do not think the traditional western therapy models I have been taught would always be useful to their experience or always culturally appropriate.

What we consider in Western culture to be a symptom may be considered something completely different in indigenous culture.

Even with mental health, someone could be exhibiting symptoms of what we understand to be the result of trauma however could mean a multitude of different things, particularly spiritually, within their society. Going into that therapeutic space as a Westerner and forcing your understanding of symptoms and treatment is not going to form a therapeutic alliance and will almost certainly alienate the individual. Therefore, it is important for allied health professionals to be trained as much as possible to provide culturally sensitive therapy or treatment wherever possible.

There is always a need for culturally appropriate services and funding to keep the indigenous youth engaged in a space that feels comfortable for them. I think keeping the kids ‘on country’ to have these discussions with their family and elders is the most important thing.
Indigenous health care for indigenous Australians is always the best way to go and I love that the Deadly Thinking and Deadly Thinking Youth programs engage elders and everyone from the community.

From what I understand, indigenous people can find it incredibly difficult to share problems they may be having at home or with their mental health in a space that does not feel safe or culturally appropriate and it seems that’s what RRMH is all about. I personally would love to sit in on one of your Train The Trainer sessions for Deadly Thinking because I think it would be incredibly informative and important for all allied health professionals in Mparntwe”.