By Associate Professor Pat Dudgeon, Centre For Aboriginal Studies, Curtin University of Technology; Darren Garvey, Centre For Aboriginal Studies, Curtin University of Technology (currently on secondment to Edith Cowan University); Yvonne Clark MAPS, Mary Street Adolescent Program, Adelaide; Heidi Lethbridge, Link-Up, Tasmania

Associate Professor Pat Dudgeon:

My people are the Bardi people from the Kimberley in northern Western Australia. For 19 years I have been at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University, most of that time involved in a management role. I am making a career change next year to undertake research with the Indigenous community. My focus will be empowering Indigenous women. This follows on from my doctorate entitled Indigenous Women’s Perceptions of Their Identity and Sexuality.

I graduated in psychology a long time ago and have been involved in the area for many years and seen considerable changes. In my student days, psychology either excluded or objectified Indigenous people. It was, and still is in some areas, an ethnocentric discipline largely grounded in Western culture. It was a value-laden practice that purported to be objective and apolitical. There were no other Indigenous psychologists when I graduated, and little recognition of Indigenous people and their cultural realities. This is certainly not the situation now.

The major changes I observed were both within the APS and in the Indigenous community. Activities that signalled change were the establishment of the APS Interest Group, which included non-Indigenous and Indigenous psychologists and mental health professionals who worked tirelessly to bring about reform within the APS. This group drove the first Indigenous keynote address, the first Indigenous cultural welcome to the annual APS conference, the development of guidelines pertaining to Indigenous people and issues, and the first special edition of the Australian Psychologist on Australian Indigenous Psychologies [1].

These changes were concurrent and interconnected with the Indigenous mental health movement that swept Australia in the 1990s. The Indigenous mental health movement, as I term it, was symbolised in the commissioning of the Ways Forward consultancy, which captured and consolidated a growing national interest in mental health by Indigenous people themselves. A huge landmark national conference in 1993 was attended by hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the field. This unprecedented event culminated in the 1995 publication of the Ways Forward report.

The key recommendation in the report was the inclusion of a philosophical approach to empowerment and self-determination in the provision of mental health services for Indigenous people. This meant that any service working with Indigenous people needed to ensure that mechanisms were in place to facilitate collaboration and direction from the client groups.

Concurrently, new mental health training courses started to be developed and offered across the country. We at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University developed an Indigenous counselling course; also Marr Moodjitch offered a mental health and counselling course from the VET sector. The training of Indigenous mental professionals was set in motion. Not only were Indigenous people encouraged to study in existing mainstream curricula but also in community based and culturally appropriate courses.

During that time, in the late 90s, change had been required across all different sectors; government departments, the mental health profession, community controlled organisations, and relevant education institutions.

Nowadays, terms like mental health, concepts of healing and the involvement of psychologists are very much part of Indigenous societies. An exciting development is the array of different culturally appropriate programs being developed by Indigenous organisations, the increase in numbers of Indigenous psychologists and in the cultural awareness/consciousness of non-Indigenous psychologists. There are many challenges ahead of us, for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and I believe the progress we have made over the past two decades is of utmost importance. I am proud that I have been a part of and will continue to participate in a psychology that is concerned with social justice.

Darren Garvey:

Towards the end of high school, a meeting with a careers counsellor sparked what became my eventual movement towards psychology. Not so much what he said, but the way he listened made an impact; it felt like he listened well – genuinely, sincerely and with interest. I left feeling better for the experience and wondering whether I might be of service to others if I could provide similar listening opportunities. By the beginning of second year uni, what had started as a teaching degree became more focused on psychology. The subjects seemed more aligned with my aforementioned career and personal goals. One course change later, the goal had become the attainment of the Bachelor of Psychology degree. At the end of fourth year, my parents and sister Amanda attended my graduation.

Work as a carer, alcohol and other drugs program officer and community mental health psychologist preceded an invitation to move from the country town of Cairns to the bright lights and big city of Perth. The Centre for Aboriginal Studies (CAS) at Curtin University was developing a counselling and mental health course for Indigenous people and hoped I might play a role in its delivery. Not wanting to look back in twenty years wondering ‘What if?’, I decided to make the move, giving myself two years in the new job and new place. Thirteen years later, I find myself (happily) still in Perth, having graduated to the position of ‘Probationary Local’, a title bestowed on me following my admission that I now follow AFL rather than rugby league.

At one time, I was closer to discussions and activities concerning Australian psychology and Indigenous people, due largely to the enthusiasm of Pat Dudgeon and Harry Pickett – two mentors with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy. This culminated with the publication in 2000 of Working with Indigenous Australians: A Handbook for Psychologists. What began as a modest project aimed at providing responses to many often-repeated questions we’d receive in various meetings and discussions, became a 500 page book with contributions by nearly 50 authors, more than half of them Indigenous. The final product exceeded our initial vision in both word count and breadth of coverage. It embodied Indigenous direction while incorporating respectful collaborations. It also proved a very draining venture.

I drifted away from this intense focus for several years, concentrating on my teaching role. This developed into an enduring interest in pedagogy, specifically, how to teach and talk about Indigenous studies with students. One of the steps I believe, is to begin by listening to the questions, concerns and anxieties they bring. This remains a passion for me as it not only stands to enhance the meaningfulness and usefulness of students' learning experiences, it ultimately stands to benefit their clients generally, and Indigenous clients specifically.

The new year sees me on leave from Curtin and the classroom, and employed part-time by Edith Cowan University with the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet team. My primary role involves updating and developing the Social and Emotional Wellbeing (SEWB) section of their website. Due to be (re)launched in June 2007, we hope the SEWB website will become an informative and interactive resource via the forum (e-yarning place) and associated list serve facilities (e-message stick). I encourage you to visit the site and consider joining these facilities (see www.healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au).

My work this past year with Dr Tracy Westerman and Kim Brooklyn of Indigenous Psychological Services will continue. It allows me to meet a variety of people from around Australia and to re-acquaint myself with some organisational concerns surrounding culturally competent practice. I am encouraged by the emergence of professionals able to comment better than I can about specific aspects of psychology and Indigenous people. I am also encouraged to see the numbers of people interested in Indigenous issues and psychology, a trend increasingly reflected by the APS with the development of policy aimed at enhancing cultural competence in students and practitioners. This clear expression of support and guidance from the Society is vital – it has been difficult to obtain and maintain a presence for Indigenous issues in many university courses so far.

I am also in the process of writing a book with the working title Place, Connection, Relationship – Indigenous Identity in Contemporary Psychology, due for release in 2008. I doubt whether it will approach the breadth of the earlier handbook but I am hoping it consolidates that information, as well as providing overviews of some frameworks for engagement, involvement and research that have emerged since then.

Through all of this, preparatory and ongoing conversations are beneficial, particularly with undergraduate students and those considering research with Indigenous people. If my recent experiences both in and outside of the classroom are any indications, the questions that confronted us 13 years ago are still being asked. I feel I am able to play a part in helping students to conceptualise and clarify their motivations and processes. To that end, I hope I can continue to embody and provide ‘good listening’ to those wishing to have these ever important conversations, and I especially look forward to honing listening skills further with my promotion to ‘Dad’ following the imminent arrival of our first child.

Yvonne Clark:

There were a number of reasons why I wanted to pursue a career in psychology that were both personal and professional. One was a need to better assist myself, my family and community with healing and grief. There has been a great deal of suffering by Aboriginal people due to historical and socio-political infringements that has become intergenerational. I witnessed many injustices and issues growing up within my family and community and decided that I wanted to be part of ‘doing something about it’. This need was coupled with the inspiration by some non-Aboriginal female psychologists I worked with to pursue studying psychology. During my studying I almost pulled out many times, due to personal and financial reasons, as well as the discomfort of the teaching, which didn’t fit with my values and ideals. Yet I kept the long-term goal in mind and continued to pursue it. I graduated and registered as a psychologist in 1997.

Many of the notions of psychology still don’t fit comfortably with my values, which have been instilled in me as part of my growing up and culture. For example, I often struggle with the notion of individualism and identity as defined in Western culture. Many of the resources, tests and assessment practices are comprised around these and other Western concepts. Even though I work with many psychological concepts every day, I believe I have become relatively proficient at balancing and applying them in a cultural context.

Currently I am working at a specialist counselling service in Adelaide called Mary Street Adolescent Program, which is part of Child and Mental Health Services in South Australia. We provide counselling to adolescents who have sexually offended or harassed another person. I also engage in community development. Sexual abuse is not a topic that sits comfortably with many in the Aboriginal community, and as our work progresses the community is slowly opening up the topic, which has meant that for us there are more referrals to the program from Aboriginal families and community.

I have only just re-joined the APS after a four-year absence and haven’t had a chance to catch up with many recent initiatives by the APS concerning Aboriginal people. I am pleased to see some of the support it has provided around Aboriginal culture within the psychology curriculum, particularly in South Australia, and would like to see an expansion of such support offered around Australia. I have also noticed that there was an APS scholarship on offer to Indigenous students at the Masters level. This is a great achievement to offer such support to ensure that more Aboriginal students can reach their goals. However, I would like to see financial support offered at the Honours level. I don’t know what it’s like at other universities, but when I studied in SA there were a handful of other Aboriginal students who majored in psychology as part of their undergraduate degrees but did not take it further into the Honours level or its equivalent. I see fourth year as the gateway to a career in psychology. I would say that an Aboriginal student enrolled in Honours is already on their way to doing Masters or a PhD.

As very few Aboriginal people enrol to study psychology, I would also like to see the APS actively involved in encouraging and attracting Aboriginal people to study psychology in the first place.

Heidi Lethbridge:

I am a Nunga from South Australia and my name is Linda Lethbridge, also known as Heidi. I was adopted as a child to a Tasmanian family and have spent most of my life here. I entered university at age 22, which was made possible by an Aboriginal Bridging program at the University of Tasmania. I had left school at 15 and completed a trade certificate – I could not turn a computer on and had no idea how to write an essay.

I chose to study psychology because I had a natural curiosity for people and a desire to work with them. However, whilst the undergraduate psychology degree introduced me to research concepts, reading and writing in the psychology discipline, it failed to enhance my ability, desire or skill base for working with people. In my second year I was employed as an Aboriginal Cadet Occupational Psychologist with the Department of Education Employment Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA).

In 1995 I completed my B.A. with a double major in psychology (results not good enough to enter honours) and began the final stages of the cadetship at the Commonwealth Employment Agency (CES) under the supervision of senior occupational psychologists. However the supervisory role and occupational career path soon ceased, because another psychologist complained that I did not have enough education to be a psychologist. The Department looked into this and found the state psychological registration board still recognised 3-year study plus 3-year supervision. After some debate I was informed I could stay in my position. But I felt that without the support of my colleagues I should leave the position until I had obtained a fourth year in psychology.

After attending an APS Conference as an Aboriginal student ‘guest’, I applied for the Graduate Diploma in Community Psychology at Victoria University because I believed it would give me skills to work with people and the Aboriginal community. I moved to Victoria to start the course, which I found invaluable. The applied thesis/research component was conducted out in the community. Doing research with people in real life settings gave me immediate experience and useful skills. Ten years on, I still reflect on lessons I learnt there. While studying in Victoria I also worked for the Victorian Link-Up program that helps reunite Aboriginal people who were stolen from their families.

I returned to Tasmania to work at the CES and later, the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Services (CRS). I then became the Tasmanian Link-Up coordinator at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC). I worked briefly for CentreLink as an Indigenous Services Officer (ISO) and then for the State Government in the child protection assessment team for over three years. The work was extremely difficult and draining but also very rewarding, and the teamwork with colleagues was brilliant.

During my work at Intake and Assessment I sought professional supervision for registration. As I could not afford to pay for supervision it was agreed that I would return the hours of supervision in work. After four months of supervision and co-running weekly workshops as well as working full-time in child protection, I reassessed the situation, ceased supervision, and considered doing a Masters degree. In hindsight paying for supervision would have been more beneficial than trading the hours for further work.

In 2002 I went to enrol in a Master of Psychology course and came away from the university enrolled part-time in a Fine Arts Degree. I found Fine Arts a great stress relief to my work in child protection. I went back to work for the TAC as a Health Information Officer in the policy branch. Then in 2005 I took maternity leave to have my son. I currently conduct occasional Link-Up work for the TAC. And I’m yet to register as a psychologist.