Where it all began
In (2008/2009) Michael was working as the Manager for the Derbal Yerrigan Mental Health Service. He was very impressed by the consumer and carer engagement movement that was gaining traction in mainstream mental health. However, he was disappointed that there was not the same level of involvement or interest with Aboriginal consumers and carers.
Michael wanted to explore the reason for this; Was it just apathy on the part of services or did Community members have a deep distrust of the mental health system? These questions became his topic of interest for his postgraduate studies (PhD). He wanted to investigate and explore the low representation of Aboriginal consumers and carers within the mental health system
“…health is the right of everyone. It shouldn’t just be a privilege for a few. Everyone should have good health and everyone should have the means and access to enjoy good health.” – Michael Wright, 2019
Michael recounts the learnings from his PHD that led him to the current work
“My research question really was about how care giving in this instance is different for Aboriginal people as from non-Aboriginal people. The study explored Aboriginal people’s experiences of living with mental illness as well as the experience of family members. We wanted to understand what caring looks like for Aboriginal people. While there were many findings, the one that led me to my current work was how the system is so difficult for Aboriginal people in its lack of understanding about Aboriginal culture. That lack of understanding creates a lack of empathy and this results in services and staff responding inappropriately. Aboriginal people are then left feeling that they’ve been discriminated against and that the system has abandoned them. I was often told they felt like they’d been re-traumatised by the experience of being in the system itself.”
Michael wanted to work towards addressing these issues.
"We work with bosses, so that everything can be filtered down, because it’s easier to be filtered down than trying to push it up, because it doesn’t succeed, we’ve done that for many years."
- LFMF Elder, 2018
The community led the work
The Aboriginal Community felt that one way to move forward was to educate the staff in mental health services about Aboriginal culture; in particular about Nyoongar culture. The Aboriginal (Nyoongar) community said that the best and most appropriate way to do this would be to engage Elders to work alongside senior management. The concept of Burdiya to Burdiya (Boss to Boss) became a guiding principle and key component for the work.
Elders are central to all we do
While the Burdiya to Burdiya (Boss to Boss) was immediately implemented there was something else missing that was limiting the effectiveness of the co-design work. Michael noticed that Elders were much more enthusiastic and present when the service providers shared stories that were more personal. The Looking Forward team members began joining the dots through observations and conversations with the Elders. A particular moment occurred that proved to be an epiphany.
In a meeting between the Elders and senior management, the group were doing their usual introductions, only sharing their work histories with very little, if any, personal story. During a pause, one of the Elder’s leant across and assertively declared to one of the service staff, “You know everything about us but we know nothing about you”. This was a pivotal moment for the research methods, which is now grounded in formulating and establishing meaningful relationships. Whilst we acknowledge some of our work must be transactional, everything we do is embedded in relational ways of being. Our Aboriginal worldview demands this. This way of working is integral to ensuring the space is culturally safe for all participants.
The research methods for our projects now include activities that enhance and promote meaningful relationships; the ‘Storying’ and the ‘On Country’ activities. They are the key activities that begin establishing relationships whilst also shifting and redressing power imbalances. In these activities the Elders and young people shape, control and direct the rhythm of the activities. Both the ‘Storying’ and the ‘On Country’ are now firmly embedded as the research methods for the projects.More about the Co-Researchers
Debakarn has become the team mantra. It means “Steady” or “go along steady”.
Throughout the projects, the Elders regularly remind both the research team and the service providers to go steady, slow down, trust and be open to the process
Often our habit is to focus on how to get to solutions in the quickest way possible. Given that relationships are central to all we do, Debakarn reminds us that the richest learning comes from being immersed in the process together. One of the Elders remarked that “learning is a journey and going on the journey together is the learning”.
Services often expect instant feedback from the Elders when seeking their input. Debakarn is a reminder to allow Aboriginal participants time and space to gather all the information, reflect, consult with other community members if needed and then respond.
One service staff member during Looking Forward Moving Forward demonstrated this learning when they reflected on their way of working, “(moving from) the tendency to leap to solutions, like, “oh, we can do that”, without talking it through further and that’s been a huge learning actually… so listening and actually listening for longer until it’s all unpacked and then thinking about the resources you have and then saying okay, this is what we have”.
About the team logo
Michael shares his reflections, “The logo for the Looking Forward Project was based on a photograph of a nest outside my lounge window; the image is of New Holland Honeyeater feeding its young. We engaged a graphic designer to turn the photo in to what is now the project logo, and the title for the project, Looking Forward is about hope.
The young birds in the nest being cared for by the parents is a continual reminder that they are the future and what we do today can and does impact future generations.” As the work has progressed the logo has become even more relevant and fitting. An Aboriginal context place-based approach means positioning yourself within your country and with your people. Watching, observing and being present is critical in our work.
This includes being aware of nature; plants, animals and even the weather during our check-ins. Check-ins are a standing agenda item on our team and partner meetings and they allow us to reconnect with each other by sharing what has occurred since we last met.
The featured artwork was created by the talented artist and illustrator Kamsani Bin Salleh for the Looking Forward Moving Forward and Building Bridges projects. Kamsani is descended from the Nimunburr and Yawuru people of the Kimberley and the Ballardong Noongar people of the Perth region in Western Australia.
To see Kamsani’s other works, please visit his website kambarni.com or Instagram page @kambarni
In reference to the Building Bridges piece, Kamsani said “The design is taken from my piece ‘Reactive’ and draws on the relationship between mental state and the connection to land.”