Indigenous mental health program goes online

23 July 2020

Telehealth delivery of an Indigenous mental health program is being trialled by The University of Queensland, so care is not disrupted by coronavirus restrictions.

UQ Associate Professor Dr Maree Toombs said the restrictions in access to high-risk communities and social-distancing measures are presenting major difficulties communicating with participants of the Indigenous Model of Mental Health Care (IMMHC) project.

“Mental disorders are the most common illness among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” Dr Toombs said.

“The effects of isolation, social distancing, job loss and economic burden associated with the pandemic make already vulnerable groups disproportionately more so.

“We cannot afford to put mental health services on hold at such a difficult time.”

The federal government-funded program is a culturally acceptable mental health care model developed by Indigenous people and based on cognitive behavioural therapy and traditional healing practices.

It was developed in response to concern from local communities about high rates of mental illness and intergenerational trauma.

“The switch to a telehealth mode may seem a quick and easy solution, but information technology is not readily available or used in these communities,” Dr Toombs said.

“It completely ignores cultural protocol, with Indigenous people heavily reliant on face-to-face engagement to establish connections.

“Despite this, in consultation with the community we have adapted our protocol to suit the situation because discontinuing the project would do more harm than good.”

Those without IT resources at home are able to access a private room at participating local Indigenous medical centres.

Dr Toombs said the project’s move to a telehealth mode could have a substantial impact on the standards of Indigenous health service delivery, future policies and practice.

But she said implementation of any change in protocol must be co-designed by Indigenous participants and community leaders, to ensure the online format embeds the Indigenous concepts of land, culture, spirituality, ancestry, family and community.

“It’s imperative that the potential benefits of telehealth are balanced against potential negative social or cultural impacts,” Dr Toombs said.

“For a trial that aims to provide an Indigenous model of mental health care, the importance of taking care of participant’s mental health is paramount.

“Now more than ever, it’s essential to engage with Indigenous Australians and communities to develop culturally appropriate contingency plans to continue already established projects.”

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