Mental health program receives funding to support Indigenous adolescents

UNSW Sydney is leading a program to promote parenting skills for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fathers and to improve the mental health of their adolescent children.
Yolande Hutchinson | UNSW Newsroom

A project aimed at improving Indigenous adolescent mental health will be rolled out in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across North Queensland. The program, led by UNSW Sydney Associate Professor Susan Rees, will promote parenting knowledge and empowerment in Indigenous fathers.

The program is funded by a $1.7 million grant from the Indigenous Health Research Fund (IHRF), part of a $35 million investment in Indigenous health projects announced by the Australian Government this week.

“Indigenous adolescents are profoundly disadvantaged compared to their non-Indigenous peers, as reflected by most mental wellbeing indices,” A/Prof. Rees said. “The importance of improving adolescent mental health cannot be underestimated given the pervasive mental health disability and high risk for suicide in Aboriginal communities.”

The ground-breaking program has been designed for Indigenous fathers, with consideration given to their cultural background and context. The parenting component will be implemented in men’s group format sessions over seven weeks.

The aim is to promote father’s empowerment, parenting skills and knowledge, and increased engagement with their adolescent. The program will measure the impact of the parenting intervention on adolescent social and emotional well-being.

“A cultural approach to parenting is important because parenting is shaped by unique historical and contemporary strengths, impacts and challenges. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, men have always had an important role in preparing young people to enter and succeed in adulthood,” A/Prof. Rees said.   

“Parenting in the holistic sense can influence mental as well as physical health, behaviour, academic skills, and future employment. Men's mental health may in this context mediate the relationship between parenting and positive adolescent mental health outcomes.”

“A key benefit in improving the mental health of adolescents is to enhance their capacity to manage life challenges and adversity and to make the most of opportunities. Rather than introducing western psychological methods, we have applied the skills of Aboriginal team members and Indigenous knowledge on men’s roles and parenting to unify families and positively impact adolescent mental health,” A/Prof. Rees said.

The content of the program involves Aboriginal knowledge and leadership, and existing Indigenous practices around men’s business and adolescent parenting. It builds on the team’s Indigenous-led community-based mental health programs with Aboriginal fathers and emphasises community involvement, capacity building, higher degrees, and skills transfer.

Members of the project team include Mr Lyndon Reilly and Professor Derrick Silove from UNSW Medicine and Doctor Mick Adams from Edith Cowan University. A/Prof Rees, Mr Reilly and Dr Adams have enduring cultural and/or community connections in North Queensland.

A joint statement issued by The Hon Greg Hunt MP, Minister for Health, and The Hon. Ken Wyatt AM MP, Minister for Indigenous Australians said the Fund will mobilise health and medical research for the prevention of disease and promotion of health and social equity.

“The government is dedicated to improving health outcomes for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and maintains a long-standing and important commitment to achieving health equity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians,” it stated.