Mental health: developing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander expertise

Mental health study CSU Indigenous students

Australian Government statistics indicate that in any average 12-month period, 20 per cent of Australians will experience a mental health disorder.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the figure is closer to 30 per cent.

Everyone’s experience of mental illness is unique. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face many significant contributing factors. These include the deep suffering that results from past and continuing disadvantage, racism, early death, and separation from family members through high rates of incarceration.

This means that mental health support and treatment services need a tailored approach to meet the distinct needs of these communities. Which is where the Bachelor of Health Science (Mental Health) Djirruwang Program at Charles Sturt University (CSU) comes in.

A unique program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Open to students who are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, the course has been designed in collaboration with a community-based Indigenous mental health steering committee to train students to be able to meet the specific mental health needs of Indigenous communities. It is the only bachelor’s degree program in New South Wales for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that leads to the mental health worker qualification.

The program allows students to study online, so they can keep working and apply their knowledge to their workplace as they progress through the course. The program also includes other workplace learning opportunities and residential schools, where students come together on campus for a week or so for face-to-face learning and support.

A course designed for Indigenous communities

Neil Kinchela, a Gamilaraay man from Moree, is currently studying the degree.

“I chose to study with Charles Sturt University as they have a strong track record of producing appropriately qualified mental health clinicians. The combination of workplace experience and study at university offers a very holistic and unique approach to learning. Studying online was a little bit daunting at the start. But once I’d become familiar with the resources and processes, it’s been a very enjoyable experience.

“My main goal in studying this degree is to return to my community to become a competent and practiced clinician that the community has faith in to help them on their journey to mental health recovery.”

How can CSU make study work for you?

At CSU, we want anyone who is able and capable to have the opportunity to study at uni, regardless of their personal circumstances.

Kylie Jensen is a Wiradjuri woman from Tumut. She values the ability to combine study and work – and the support she can access when she needs it.

“I applied to the program because I work at NSW Health with two people who had done the course successfully. I work full-time and get a day each week for uni study. So the information that I gain at uni is cemented in the position I have in the workplace. I’m fortunate to have the best of both worlds.

“Being a single parent and working full-time, the support I’ve needed at times has been quite big over the last three years. CSU has supported me really well with counsellors, tutoring and the ALLaN program. I’ve used the support that has been available and that’s helped get me to where I am now.”

How can you and your community benefit?

For David Thomas, a Yuin man from Nowra, the program is all about community.

“The Djirruwang Program is based around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health. It gives you the chance to go back into your community. And you can educate not only members of the community, but also non-Indigenous clinicians about factors affecting mental health.

“In the community that I’m from, not a lot is known about mental health. So when I saw the opportunity not only to engage in that traineeship program, but also be the first in my family to study at university, I decided to take it.

“My goal is to share my knowledge with my community. At some point I would also like to further my education, perhaps going into nursing and psychology.”

Become part of a student community

David also found that the residential schools enhanced the experience.

“The benefit of the residential schools is that you create a family-like environment with your fellow students. Everyone has their own interpretations of the subjects, so you can really bounce ideas off one another.”

Gemma Carter, a Darug woman from Sydney, echoes the sentiment.

“The benefits of the residential schools was having some face-to-face learning. This helped to develop relationships with other students and the teachers. The program also arranges away-from-base funding. So we have help with travel and accommodation and meal costs to allow us to attend residential schools.

“I would say to someone considering doing this program, it’s a great opportunity. It’s built to support you whatever situation you’re in. You make good friends and it’s an opportunity you don’t come across very often.”

Do you want to provide mental health support in your community?

In 2018, the Djirruwang Program celebrates 25 years of delivering tailored education to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health students. And we want to enable many more people to make a difference in the future.

So if you would like to develop the expertise in mental health that can help your community, contact us to find out more.