18/02/2010 - 00:00

Helping hand for society’s most vulnerable

18/02/2010 - 00:00


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ANYONE who has started a business knows how tough it can be, even when the product sells itself and people are queuing around the block to become clients.

Helping hand for society’s most vulnerable

ANYONE who has started a business knows how tough it can be, even when the product sells itself and people are queuing around the block to become clients.

So choosing to service the most marginalised and impoverished segment of Australian society would hardly seem to be much of a recipe for success.

Yet success is exactly what Tracy Westerman, shortlisted for the 40under40 1st Amongst Equals, has achieved since she established Indigenous Psychological Services (IPS) in 1998.

In the ensuing 12 years, Dr Westerman has created a private business believed to be the only one of its type anywhere in the world, which has not only thrived but has also made life-changing differences to some of Australia’s most remote and troubled communities.

IPS provides culturally appropriate mental health services to Aboriginal people, often in communities where there has never before been access to meaningful mental health care of any type.

Its primary function is providing training programs for mental health workers working with Aboriginal people, establishing community based mental health intervention programs, undertaking research into Aboriginal mental health issues and building a national network of professional consultants respected by the communities they serve.

It also provides mental health cultural competency training to organisations that deal with Aboriginal communities.

Having grown up in outback Western Australia, Dr Westerman says she was determined to respond to the mental health issues specific to Aboriginal communities and which contribute to depression, suicide and substance abuse.

But after becoming the first indigenous Australian to gain a PhD in clinical psychology, her then employer – a major government department – could not see a role for her that could make the best use of her skills

“Basically, they wanted me to sit in a room and see my 10 clients a week but I wanted to go out and run community intervention programs,” Dr Westerman says. “I certainly believed I could meet the needs of a lot more people.

“I had long service leave coming up ... so I designed a training package, put it in the fax machine, sent it out to all the different organisations in WA and then just sat there and hoped that somebody might register for my training workshop.

“Nothing happened at first, but then literally it just went bang.”

From starting out as a lone hand, IPS now has 12 consultants operating in four states and territories, and delivers an average of 24 mental health training packages to 1,000 Aboriginal mental health counsellors annually.

It has also delivered mental health intervention programs to 15 Aboriginal communities, directly assisting more than 1,600 indigenous Australians suffering from mental illness.

Dr Westerman has personally trained 9,000 people to manage indigenous mental health issues since 2002, and is internationally recognised as a leading expert on Aboriginal mental health issues.

Dr Westerman attributes IPS’s success to understanding the specific needs of a given community, and providing the community with practical strategies to deal with the issues affecting it.

“Eventually, we work ourselves out of a job,” she says.

IPS’s success can be measured in the fact it has one of the highest revenue for any psychology practice in the country, and has not had to apply for a tender in the past 11 years, in turn enabling it to provide services to some of the most needy communities on a pro-bono basis.



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