As part of Mental Health Week WA, National Indigenous Times is bringing the conversation front and centre to its readers. If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the resources at the end of this article.

A trailblazer in the First Nations health space, Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services (KAMS) is leading the way in Aboriginal self-determination in primary health by ensuring the development of safe, comfortable and consistent mental health care.

Deputy CEO of KAMS, Rob McPhee explained that the organisation aims to improve the holistic health of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley by supporting seven independent Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations.

“Our model of care is about the social, emotional, physical and cultural wellbeing of community. Our relationship with communities across the Kimberley is a very personal relationship where we deliver face-to-face clinical services,” Mr McPhee said.

The demand for mental health services in communities across the Kimberley has significantly increased. With the loss of 13 young Aboriginal children earlier this year, KAMS is putting its best foot forward to fight for the delivery of culturally safe and consistent support.

KAMS has been working with the State and Commonwealth Governments on the Kimberley Aboriginal Suicide Prevention Trial, which is committed to delivering effective and long-lasting mental health services to the Kimberley.

“It’s being going for about two years now – it will end in June next year but the Federal Minister [for Indigenous Australians] Ken Wyatt has said he is committed to transitioning the trial to an ongoing suicide prevention community wellbeing program,” Mr McPhee said.

“Aboriginal people from across the Kimberley have sat in the room with State and Commonwealth Governments and mapped out issues that affect our mental health and wellbeing.”

“For a region like the Kimberley, this will set the foundation for work over the next 15-plus years to tackle those systemic and hard issues that we have often struggled to deal with because we haven’t been in the same room at the same time and all saying the same things.”

While moving through this process KAMS is also providing mental health support to communities through its delivery of the Headspace program and their regional social and emotional training support.

There is a major gap between services available in metropolitan and remote areas, and KAMS is working towards closing this gap.

“In remote communities, we are heavily reliant on government funded mental health services and most of those are delivered through fly-in and fly-out services,” Mr McPhee said.

“They have long waiting lists and don’t suit the here and now requirements of community – if someone needs help, the next appointment could be a four to six week wait and the likelihood of that person returning is very low.”

KAMS prioritises an Aboriginal-led and controlled workspace, identifying it as crucial to delivering services effectively in community.

“There is that direct relationship between the staff in those clinics and the communities – they can understand and appreciate the demands within the community, family relationships, historical circumstances and language and cultural protocol,” Mr McPhee said.

Mr McPhee noted that the conversation around health is beginning to change.

“People are recognising the need for us to be able to heal these unresolved traumas, to be able to work through the emotional issues we have experienced and continue to experience,” he said.

Mr McPhee said it’s not only about having access to clinic-based mental health services, but that it also includes factors such as:

  • Strong cultural connections
  • Development of identity and belonging
  • Understanding stories of country
  • Family relationships
  • Strong education opportunities
  • Access to employment and income.

“These are underlying factors that influence that, when someone is strong mentally and doing well, they often have these factors in place,” Mr McPhee said.

“It’s not something we can address on its own or in isolation – the reality is unless we are able to change the circumstances people are in, there’s a certain limit to what we can achieve through just mental health services alone.”

KAMS has a strong belief that this approach to holistic health can be achieved by bridging the gap between service and community through Aboriginal health workers who create safe spaces.

“The first thing we need to do is we need to cut the shame associated with mental health. We need to encourage people to reach out – being able to go to a clinic and seek professional support. We have to create an environment where that is normal,” Mr McPhee said.

“If people do need professional help, we have to ensure that help is available when it’s needed. If we are going to encourage people to seek help we need to have the help there ready to be provided as well.”

Despite the persistent drive and constant pushing forward, Mr McPhee said the work KAMS is doing is incredibly powerful and rewarding.

“It’s the gradual improvement, being able to see that what we do makes a difference in people’s lives every day. Having those hard conversations about what is not working, and allowing us to find solutions to make it better,” he said.

“I think change is slow, and the issues we have been facing as a colonised people have been occurring since 1788.”

“I’m excited about the time when we get to a place where the position of Aboriginal people in this country is respected in law, in relationships and the way we interact with one another. It drives me thinking of that.”

“If we keep pushing and keep trying, we will make change for our people.”

If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health, call or visit the online resources below:

By Rachael Knowles