I’m still here: mental health care for Aboriginal communities

  • MDAS is working with other health providers to embed cultural safety into mental health treatment plans for Aboriginal people.

MDAS is working with other health providers to embed cultural safety into mental health treatment plans for Aboriginal people.

Mallee District Aboriginal Services
Kirsten Lloyd,
Director of Strategic Communications and Partnerships

When Hannah* was experiencing a mental health crisis, she found herself in a sterile hospital room, feeling disconnected from her identity, family and culture. For Hannah, an overwhelming sense of pain and hopelessness had engulfed her and she feared that only her death could save  her. Then Aroha walked in, sat by her bed and gently took her hand.

Mallee District Aboriginal Services (MDAS), which supports the communities along the Murray River from Mildura through to Kerang in north-west Victoria, is reimagining how mental health and wellbeing support is provided. Taking a holistic approach, their Social and Emotional Wellbeing team has worked hard to build relationships with mainstream mental healthcare providers, including the local hospital, with the view of embedding cultural safety into the treatment plans for Aboriginal people.

‘Our approach connects the different chapters of a person’s life; we consider all the influences and experiences that have led to where they are,’ explains Aroha Shuttleworth, Clinical Practice Leader.

‘Along with removing the barriers to clinical care, we address the compounding issues, such as intergenerational trauma, housing, family violence, relationship breakdown and addiction.

‘You can’t improve someone’s mental health if you don’t address all the pressures they are confronting. Our approach is big picture.’ Aroha says.

For Hannah, this was lifesaving. The moment her family reached out to Aroha on her behalf, her journey to recovery truly began. Hannah’s medical needs were met by the hospital staff while her emotional healing was nurtured, in a culturally safe way, by Aroha and her team.

Hannah knows the pain of grief – it has visited her family many times. She has lost two uncles, two brothers and an aunty to suicide. The words of her grieving Elder, after he’d lost both his sons, rang in her ears: ‘Don’t do this to yourself, you must survive.’ But in her darkest hours, when the torment was unbearable, she thought that, in death, all her pain ‘would go away’ and that she would be ‘free’.

Seeing her despair, Hannah says her family recognised the need to support her, outside the construct of mainstream health care. In seeking the help of the MDAS Social and Emotional Wellbeing team, her family acknowledged that Hannah’s recovery depended on more than clinical care and ensured every avenue for support was explored, both medically and culturally.

‘My mental health team gave me deadly support. Without my Mob’s wraparound holistic support, I would not be here today,’ Hannah says.

The MDAS team visited Hannah regularly during her hospital stay and continue to see her weekly now she’s back home. The continuity of care, and the support they’ve given her to reconnect with her sense of self, purpose and belonging, has been critical.

The wraparound mental health response and the partnerships MDAS has developed are saving people like Hannah. The local hospital is increasingly supportive of MDAS’s approach that finds a balance between clinical intervention and cultural connection.

In regional and rural areas, access to health care remains problematic and relationships between clinical providers and social and emotional wellbeing teams are one way to ensure people can receive care when, where and, importantly, how they need it.

When Aroha sat beside her bed in the hospital and took her hand, Hannah felt a glimmer of hope.

She was seen.

Months on, Hannah stands proud, sharing her story, acknowledging the people who wrapped around her. She struggled through the darkness and she survived.

‘I’m still here.’

*Not her real name

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