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Bendigo Health's Aboriginal mental health clinician calls for more funding as program helps heal wounds

Going fishing, having a chat, or walking in the bush.

These are things Palawa man Matthew Crook does regularly as part of his work as an Aboriginal mental health clinician with Bendigo Health.

While these tasks sound idyllic, Mr Crook sees people at their worst and tries to give them strategies to help them connect to country, the right health services, and then the community. 

Mr Crook said there was a huge need for more tailored mental health support for aboriginal people.

"There's still a big barrier for Aboriginal people accessing mainstream services," he said.

"Having a clinician like myself, that can break through those barriers, really helps them."

He said due to inherited trauma Indigenous communities had a mistrust of mainstream health services.

"For example, there are historical issues of people going into hospital and having children removed, people going into hospital and not returning home.

"Then you have communities where people are saying don't go to hospital. It's just somewhere to die.

"So, being able to break that down and get people the help that they need to keep them living longer and living a good life."

Nature-based activities to recover

The Palawa man, originally from Tasmania, has been able to build a rapport with Aboriginal clients that he believes non-aboriginal clinicians would not have been able to achieve as quickly.

"I find that they come and talk to me before going to talk to anybody else," Mr Crooks said.

"I think that I can have some frank conversations with them that yield results."

Mr Crook was one of 10 Aboriginal Mental Health trainees employed across the state in 2019 as part of an initiative to expand the Indigenous mental health workforce.

He works in Bendigo Health's 12-bed Community Care Unit, where he helps patients achieve the goal of living independently through long-term rehabilitation.

Participants engage in a rotation of life skill activities, including cooking, shopping and applying for housing.

Mr Crook has introduced nature-based activities of fishing, bush walks, cycling and caring for chooks.

"Getting out in nature and experiencing the beauty of being out in the bush and the relaxation," he said.

"Going fishing and standing on the edge of either river or lake is just a beautiful place to be. I think it really helps to facilitate recovery."

Mr Crook said his job included promoting connection to country as much as possible, linking people to the right services and education.

But his understanding of aboriginal culture and family relations is crucial to his ability to connect with participants.

"I do some education," he said.

"I help link indigenous clients with Indigenous services.

"An element of it is trying to build those bridges between BDAC [Bendigo and District Aboriginal Co-operative] and Bendigo Health."

Calls for more funding

Interim chief  executive Bendigo and District Aboriginal Co-Operative (BDAC) Dallas Widdicombe said access to mental health services was poor.

"There is a need for more culturally targeted services," he said.

He said almost half of BDAC's clients had been diagnosed with anxiety or depression.

"We need more Aboriginal-trained staff in mainstream mental health services," Mr Widdicombe said.

Mr Crook's called for more state government funding and more certainty for aboriginal mental health trainees and clinicians.

"If we had a rolling in intake where we could employ a trainee every year, that would help build the program," he said.

"It would mean having more people like myself in many different units of the hospital instead of just here at the Community Care Unit."

"We need to find ways to move forward and try and bring everybody up together."

A Victorian government spokesperson said the budget included $3.5 million over two years to enable Aboriginal communities to co-design suicide prevention and response initiatives.

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