In the Top End of the Northern Territory, a group of First Nations kidney health mentors are working to improve the mental health of people on their renal journey. For people with kidney disease, there is an increased risk of depression, particularly for those on dialysis. First Nations peoples may have to move from their communities and Country for dialysis or kidney transplants, which also significantly impacts on mental health and wellbeing.
Mentors Lachlan Ross, David Croker, Neil Wilkshire and Peter Henwood are finding innovative ways to improve the mental health of kidney patients in Darwin. With support from Panuku, Purple House, they are connecting people to Country through fishing, spear making and bush tucker trips. These cultural activities provide a vital social connection for kidney patients and a space for the mentors to help them navigate the complex and challenging renal journey.
‘When you lose your kidney, you cannot do the things that you wanted to or had planned for yourself. That’s out the window. You are in a mourning state. You are grieving for what you lost, especially when you are fully independent and then all of a sudden you end up on the [dialysis] machine,’ Peter Henwood explains.
The mentors describe the loss of control and autonomy that is part of end-stage kidney disease and going on dialysis, and the impact this has on mental health. They talk about how yarning, sharing stories and being surrounded by family and community helps through the grieving stage.
Neil Wilkshire describes how the mentors support renal patients: ‘We keep reassuring them that, as long as you keep doing what the doctor tells you [and] you keep going to check-ups, you will be okay. We take them out fishing, making spears and just encourage them. Stress is one of the main [things] that will make you sick, so that is why we want to take them out and take their mind off it.’
Recently, the mentors took renal patient Wayne Lalara and caregiver Frank Mirniyowan to Buffalo Creek for spear fishing, where they caught stingrays and shared a barbeque. The group also came into the Panuku office to make spears together. These activities are a way to connect renal patients with the mentors, but also an opportunity to talk about their mental health and struggles of being homesick and away from Country with people who have shared, lived experience.
As Lachlan Ross expresses, ‘We [mentors] are not like doctors. We’re like family. If you go see a doctor and try to improve your [mental health], it won’t happen. You sit down and talk with us, it will happen. We have shown this.’
The kidney health mentor program and cultural activities are helping renal patients in the Top End to reduce isolation, connect with others and ultimately improve mental health. Culturally grounded approaches to mental health are important for First Nations renal patients, families and communities.
You can learn more about the mentors’ work here: www.purplehouse.org.au/patient-preceptors
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