Karen Elston is a key member of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) primary healthcare team, based in Broken Hill, New South Wales (NSW). She is a Seasons for Growth veteran, having championed the program since 2011 across several agencies in Western NSW. Now, in her current role at RFDS, she is bringing the program to communities in remote Australia.
As the RFDS website explains: ‘Australia is a big place – 7.69 million square kilometres – and with a relatively small population of 25 million people. Two-thirds of our population live around the regional coastlines and the remaining live across rural and remote areas – sometimes more than an eight-hour drive to the closest township.’
This means access to health services is a problem for many in rural and remote areas. The RFDS works hard to reduce this disparity. Their primary health services strive to ensure that, no matter where people live, they can access mental health and wellbeing services in times of need.
Karen is passionate about bringing the Seasons for Growth evidence-based program to people living in some of the most isolated parts of Australia. Karen has worked across outback Australia and understands the importance of providing children and young people with a safe space to articulate their grief and loss.
Children and young people in rural and remote Australia will experience incidences of grief and loss that are similar to children living in towns and cities across Australia, such as the death of a loved one or parental separation. But in the areas serviced by the RFDS, children and young people can also experience extreme isolation, a challenging move from studying with School of the Air at home to boarding school, separation from siblings who move to the ‘big smoke’ for school or parents dealing with the challenges of drought, then floods.
Delivering services in such remote locations requires planning and lateral thinking. Karen works closely with schools and parents to ensure children and young people have access to programs. Her team will fly into stations, then drive to and stay overnight in towns like White Cliffs, 225 kilometres from Broken Hill, with a population of 156.
Karen has brought this ingenuity to her work with Aboriginal children and adolescents through the program. When she delivered it in Wilcannia, she was working with young people who struggled with school attendance.
An addition Karen introduced for Aboriginal children and young people was the use of collage to tell their story, rather than focusing on written work.
The adolescent years can be challenging for young people, at times, especially in identifying or talking about how they are feeling. But as Karen has said, once you get them in, ‘magic happens’. One of her participants told her: ‘I just wanted to get out of maths, but now I am glad I came.’
‘Nothing prepares you for what comes out in a child’s eye,’ reflects Karen. Their response to grief and loss can be so different from what an adult might expect. For example, one little boy, who was experiencing his parent’s separation, shared his upset about what would happen with the family dog. Pets are often a ‘safe’ discussion point, while also being one of the major supports for a child going through change.
The RFDS would like to continue to roll out Seasons for Growth to children and young people across the outback. Karen also sees value in delivering the adult version, including the Seasons for Healing program. While population numbers are small in these communities, grief and loss doesn’t discriminate, and we need to ensure that everyone can access these supportive programs to manage wellbeing and thrive.