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Urging support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allied health workforce and students

Introduction by Croakey: The National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan must include appropriately resourced and targeted mental health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, according to Indigenous health organisations.

Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA), the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA) and Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia have called for urgent, sustained investment to build the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and social and emotional wellbeing workforce.

In particular, they are advocating for an Indigenous phone help-line, operated under Indigenous leadership and with Indigenous counsellors and mental health practitioners available 24/7 – an initiative the Centre for Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention (CBPATSISP) has also been urging.

Meanwhile, IAHA is tonight holding a virtual yarning session for members under the theme,  Staying Connected, Stronger Together, amid concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic is having wide-ranging impacts upon the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allied health workforce, including students.

Pandemic policy responses should ensure support for this vital workforce, according to Tanja Hirvonen and Kylie Stothers, from IAHA.

Governments should also invest in services that provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with culturally safe, informed, and relevant supports, delivered by health professionals who have shared experiences, they write below.


Tanja Hirvonen and Kylie Stothers write:

Supporting the wellbeing of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce during COVID-19 is a priority.

Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA) has long been working to increase and support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allied health workforce, which is crucial to improving the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allied health workforce is  more likely to understand and work in a culturally safe and responsive way with our people and communities, honouring our ways of working. They are also more likely to stay long term in health if they can draw on and exercise their cultural strengths as well as their clinical skills. 

Many are committed to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, communities, and organisations. 

When COVID-19 cases increased worldwide and countries were looking at how to respond, IAHA focussed on how best to support the existing and emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allied health workforce.

Uncertainty adds to stress

It’s not entirely clear what impact COVID-19 will have on the diverse and essential Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allied health workforce. 

It might be that the current health crisis may drive people to consider an allied health profession as a career, but what about the existing student cohort currently experiencing difficulties?  

If members of the existing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allied health workforce are impacted by the stress and other challenges that COVID brings, will they continue working in their profession or in the health sector?

IAHA’s understanding of how COVID-19 is impacting on our membership is growing daily. We know, from engaging with members, that this time has been difficult for many. 

The experiences of our members are unique, with each person impacted differently. Allied health students who were meant to be starting clinical placements were particularly vulnerable, as their placements had been delayed or even cancelled.

IAHA is deeply concerned about the impact on students and their need for support, in order to successfully graduate as expected and their transition into the workforce post the pandemic.

Allied health students are at risk of disengaging from their course, not only from the stress of moving to online learning and uncertain placements, but due also to losing jobs that assist with their living costs.

A key finding from the recent GO8 report indicates that COVID-19 has placed a significant demand on Australia’s mental health system. 

With this increased work pressure on frontline workers, burnout and exposure to patient stress may further impact on the mental health of the frontline workforce.

The report says: “There is a need to ensure Indigenous health workers are supported especially in areas where there are worker shortages and risk of infection could result in no care being available.”

Quick to act

IAHA was quick to recognise the pressing need for workforce development and support. We developed and led the development and delivery of a series of personal and professional development opportunities to support the needs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce.  

Working in partnership with our national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce organisations, IAHA commenced the first self-care series of webinars to encourage connection among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and medical workforce and provide supports that are practical and relevant to the current challenges.

We felt a sense of urgency and responsibility to provide culturally responsive supports for our membership, choosing to be proactive rather than reactive.

New ways to connect

IAHA is a membership organisation and the key priority is to support members and our communities.  Strong relationships and engagement with the membership already exist, it was thinking differently on how to best use technology to provide the supports needed was the tricky part.  

Revisiting members’ feedback and hearing their experiences and challenges was a priority and the willingness to try different approaches was our strength.

IAHA reached out to our stakeholders such as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce organisations to see how we could partner on activities, and the NSW Rural Doctors Network, who agreed to assist with the facilitation of the self-care webinar series.

What does the future hold?

Efforts are being made nationally to provide supports for the health workforce. 

The recent National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan discusses the importance of providing mental health and wellbeing supports for frontline workers. To make a difference and positively impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, some things need to be done differently. 

IAHA supports several elements of the Response Plan, especially the need to “empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to lead the development of trauma-informed responses specific to Aboriginal and communities”.

Plans and strategies are developed to make a difference when they are culturally relevant and informed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their organisations. That means enabling, resourcing, and committing to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations leading and developing responses and supports that are designed and developed by the workforce to meet their unique needs.

Culturally responsive supports are essential for the current and future allied health workforce to continue to provide high quality essential services to support the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, families and communities, ensuring that our workforce does not become the patient.

This is the risk we are facing if governments continue to invest solely in mainstream approaches and services that are not proven to be providing culturally safe, informed, and relevant supports, provided by health professionals that have shared experiences.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allied health workforce will play an essential role in redesigning a system post the pandemic, including ways of working that will better meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Their wellbeing is essential.

Tanja Hirvonen is Director of Research and Policy at IAHA, and Kylie Stothers is Director of Workforce Development