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InPsych 2011 | Vol 33

Public issues

Indigenous psychologists set the agenda as new leader takes the Chair

Talent can be concealed in many places. And those interested in increasing the number and diversity of psychologists in Australian might enjoy reflecting on the unconventional career trajectory of Glenn Williams. Glenn is the new Chair of the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA), the body that represents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists which was established three years ago under the auspices of the APS.

Glenn spent almost a decade working in the repair and manufacture of heavy mining machinery following a boiler-making apprenticeship before concerns about the long-term feasibility of such physically demanding work prompted a rethink. Fascinated by scientific endeavour and determined to increase access to resources within his community, Glenn opted for psychology.

Glenn, a Wiradjuri man who grew up in Goulburn, Victoria, was entering an area of intense need. Indigenous Australians make up 2.5 per cent of the population, a proportion which should equate to a workforce of 625 Indigenous psychologists. However, such is the under-representation that just 39 Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander psychologists were identified in the last census. Yet research has found that Indigenous Australians are twice as likely as other Australians to report psychological distress at such levels that, if left unaddressed, could contribute to mental health issues.

Glenn achieved the first step in his change of professional direction by gaining an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Wollongong and then employment there as a student support officer. In completing a Graduate Diploma in Applied Psychology at the same institution Glenn embarked on a major research project which investigated the role that external factors, such as a lack of employment, played in anger experienced by Indigenous men.

It was employment with the South Coast Medical Service Aboriginal Corporation that allowed Glenn to complete his supervision and obtain registration as a psychologist, a process he believes has been crucial to the effectiveness of his engagement with Indigenous clients. “I wanted to be the best resource I could be for my community, and psychology provided me with a set of clinical skills that would not have been available to me had I remained a counsellor,” he says.

The challenges awaiting such clinical skills have proved to be immense. As Glenn explains: “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are under enormous social and emotional pressure. They are, by and large, a traumatised people. Events of history from colonisation to the Stolen Generations have left their mark on communities and the legacy of that is still being felt today through a range of social and cultural issues, such as family breakdown, high rates of community and domestic violence, chronic disease and dispossession from land and culture.”

Many attempts to address these complex issues have fallen to Aboriginal controlled community organisations, of which Glenn’s former employer South Coast Medical Service is one. There are 140 such services in Australia that provide primary and other medical and emotional care to Indigenous Australians – depending on the local needs and resources available – and continue to use a model forged in Redfern in 1971 with the establishment of the original Aboriginal Medical Service.

Cost-free community services have proven essential to the work achieved so far in the Indigenous community. Glenn says: “In the days before Better Access, those in need had little means of getting help unless they could fund it themselves, so this meant working for a community organisation that provided access to my services for free, which is the path I took.”

Fifteen years on, Glenn is now the State mental health coordinator for the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of New South Wales, the peak body for such health services in NSW. His role supports this diverse group in the provision of mental health and social and emotional wellbeing services, and Glenn acts as a representative to the State Government on issues that relate to securing and retaining funding. Glenn also has a growing national profile in his new role as the Chair of the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association, an appointment which has attracted attention from national newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph and The Age. In this media coverage Glenn has given a glimpse into the influences that have shaped him, talking of his satisfaction in spending time with his wife, their nine shared children and four grandchildren by the pool at the South Coast NSW home he built himself – soon to be sold to enable a new self-build project to be started. He states that his key influence was his late father, Ron, who taught him “that it doesn’t matter what heights a person rises to – real achievement is when they are loved and respected in their home”. When one publication asked, if he were a car, what kind he would be, Glenn remarked: “I’d love to say a Ferrari, but in reality I am probably a Volkswagen Beetle – a humble car that is safe and dependable in all circumstances.”

But Glenn – and his predecessor as Chair of AIPA, Adjunct Associate Professor and APS Fellow Pat Dudgeon – have set an excellent example of how media appetite for such amiable insights can be harnessed to provide opportunities to express serious messages about AIPA’s core work. Glenn continues to act as a public advocate for the need for training in cultural competence for non-Indigenous psychologists, as well as the advancement of meaningful opportunities so that more psychologists can be drawn from within the many Indigenous communities.

Glenn says: “We must provide psychologists with cultural education so they can successfully engage with, and understand, the unique cultural perspective of Indigenous people. We must restore people’s connections to the community, to family, to the land and to their own spirituality because it is those connections that underpin wellbeing for Indigenous Australians. Too many clinical professionals fail to grasp that clinical skills need to be applied or couched in culturally sensitive ways to be fully effective; this is certainly true within the application of psychology. It is within this cultural context of practical application that Indigenous psychologists can inform and lead non-Indigenous psychologists.”

Membership of AIPA has now reached 45, up from 38 at the time of the inception of the organisation, and members of the association have been called on to contribute to numerous committees and boards, not least the steering group that oversees the important Close the Gap campaign. From its start just three ago, AIPA is already playing a proactive role in shaping policy and programs that relate to Indigenous Australians – an immense task, involving engagement with the full array of State and Federal Government and associated organisations to ensure a coordinated and effective effort in this crucial area.

An AIPA discussion paper issued last year looked at the determinants of social and emotional wellbeing for Indigenous Australians, and is an early step and significant contribution in the association’s determination to increase important research to define the means by which the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous individuals and communities can be best protected and improved. The discussion paper, available on the AIPA website, will do much to help shape future debate and Glenn says that “the diverse bunch that make up AIPA’s members, who range from those in academic posts to those in private practice or working for community-controlled organisations”, are developing a strong national voice. The steering committee of AIPA draws on the expertise of Pat Dudgeon (Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia), Dr Christine Gillies (a private practitioner based in Wollongong), Amanda Hart (a psychologist employed in the schools sector in the Northern Territory), Yvonne Clark (a senior lecturer in psychology with the University of Adelaide) and Yolonda Adams (a psychologist who has worked in mental health services in the Northern Territory and Queensland), and benefits from the support provided by AIPA project officer Kerrie Kelly and the APS Public Interest team.

Glenn says: “AIPA’s role is to help set the mental health agenda for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which includes developing a framework for the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous people. We can apply our specific knowledge and understanding of Indigenous history, culture and experience to developing a template for an appropriate cultural service model for psychological practice in Indigenous communities. We must ensure services are equitable, timely, safe, sustainable, evidence-based and culturally safe.”

In the coming year, in collaboration with the recently resurrected APS Indigenous Psychology Education Reference Group, AIPA will continue its work to encourage psychology educators to adopt units devoted to Indigenous psychology and associated issues in undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. It will also work towards the enrolment of more Indigenous Australians into psychology courses. This has been one of AIPA’s founding principles, but so far there have been few easy answers to encourage more students and support them in navigating the always difficult path to full registration as a psychologist. Glenn will continue to work to widen the path – through action, and by example, in his work at AIPA.


Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on June 2011. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.