The Blue Mountain and Nepean area of New South Wales services the largest population of Aboriginal peoples nationwide and will see the increase of mental health and drug and alcohol counselling delivered by newly trained Aboriginal health professionals.

The Diploma of Mental Health and Alcohol and Other Drugs, delivered by TAFE Digital and Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, Sydney University, has seen its first nine graduates.

Poche Manager, Vita Christie, said that through tender with Wentworth Health Care and NBMPHN, the training could empower Aboriginal health workers within the spheres of mental health, alcohol and other drugs.

“To date, the graduates have engaged with over 655 clients, with interaction and monitoring progress being a key success metric,” Ms Christie said.

“The graduates are able to help improve Indigenous health outcomes, with the Aboriginal workforce increasing retention of Indigenous clients in their local communities.”

Wentworth Healthcare CEO, Lizz Reay, acknowledges the barriers that limit First Nations Peoples accessing health services and believe that graduates of the Diploma have the power to break down those barriers and provide culturally safe and appropriate support.

“Before these nine students graduated, our consultations indicated that there was only one qualified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community worker to provide drug and alcohol counselling in our region. As a result of this program there are now ten. We think that is a great result for our community.”

“It’s the largest Aboriginal community in Australia, the fact is that it is in a metropolitan area so it isn’t as easy to change mainstream services in how they are designed but what you can do is try and add or value add to mainstream services … somewhere such as Nepean/Blue Mountains is a high area of need,” Ms Christie said.

Cadetships were also offered, which four students undertook. The cadetship included completing the Diploma whilst taking on paid work in four host organisations in the NBMPHN catchment area including Neami Nepean Penrith, WHOS West, Hawkesbury District Community Health (St John of God Healthcare), and Ted Noffs Mt Druitt.

Cadet Mikielah Leigh worked at the Hawkesbury District Health Service, St John of God.

“The Poche cadetship has been an incredible learning journey for me, as I started with little experience in the area of mental health, drug and alcohol health services. I now have the essential skillsets to pursue my dream of a career in healthcare and plan to become one of only a few Aboriginal Social Workers in Western Sydney, once I’ve obtained a degree.

“Throughout the 18 months of my cadetship I have [also] gained knowledge and skills … in how to work professionally with a passionate and hardworking team.”

In conjunction with the Diploma, a community engagement and education program was delivered.

“Through Rural and Remote Mental Health, a ‘Deadly Thinking – train the trainer’ event was held to upskill local community members in Indigenous mental health, to build awareness and improve health outcomes,” Ms Christie said.

“Following this training, four community workshops were planned and facilitated by the newly trained trainers.”

Commissioned by the Nepean Blue Mountains Primary Health Network (NBMPPHN) and funded by the Australian Government, the partnership between Poche and TAFE Digital enabled the graduates and cadets to gain employment and work with confidence and competence.

By Rachael Knowles