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Australia’s Royal Flying Doctor Service is trying new ways to improve healthcare in Aboriginal communities, as Georgina Kenyon finds.

It begins when the gusts of wind seem to continually change direction. The humidity has been building for days. Many flying foxes have left, flown now to safer places. This is cyclone season and the start of the monsoon in northern Australia, but the locals call it mango season, when fruit is ripe and tensions between people are strained. This is when flooding occurs, roads are cut off and people often become stranded in isolated communities, without access to healthcare and food and other supplies. If people are stranded, especially if they have alcohol, it can be a volatile and violent time.

Shaun Sellwood works for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). He travels to Aboriginal communities throughout northern Australia, visiting local social workers and counsellors and helping communities with drug and alcohol and social issues. He knows that to be good at supporting the needs of Indigenous people, as well as remote communities in general, you need to not only understand their culture but also be sensitive to the changing seasons.

“Mango season from November to March can be critical for families in northern Queensland and the Northern Territory. We need to understand how best to prepare for the situations that people can find themselves in,” he says. It is not just Indigenous people who suffer in these difficult conditions but all isolated communities.

He explains that this period is marked by a rise in the number of suicides and often violent behaviour towards young people and women. Medical workers need to be aware of the stress on families during this time of year.

Heart and soul

To help give people coping skills and to help them prepare for stressful situations like the mango season, counsellors at the RFDS Wellbeing Centre in Mossman Gorge organise a range of activities to try to help people think through the challenging aspects of their lives. The counsellors try to help people think analytically, articulate what causes their families stress and, ultimately, discover what can be done to help.

Ellie Starkey runs weekend retreats for local Indigenous women to rediscover cultural traditions and bush medicine, as many women in the community feel deeply sad that they did not learn about traditional customs growing up away from their families. She also helps the women cope with grief and loss in their lives, encouraging them to use storyboards, collages and words to show what is making them sad.

Meanwhile, Josh Williams runs a men’s group, helping fathers in the community become more supportive and involved in their children’s lives. He believes there is a need to both culturally and clinically improve the health of the people in the local community. He says that one of the best activities to help men talk to him about what is difficult in their lives is to take them on a fishing trip on the nearby river. 

Flesh and blood

Sellwood is a great advocate of being a good listener to the people you are trying to help. He has learned much of what he knows by living with Aboriginal communities since he was a child.

He has also learned that delivering high-quality public health services in remote places can be difficult, not just emotionally but also practically. For example, the challenge of remote health involves not only treating people but maintaining stocks of medication and well-maintained equipment. Often the RFDS realise that medication, such as diabetes medication, has not been stored properly due to a lack of refrigeration.

But although being a health worker in northern Australia is very demanding, Sellwood has stayed because of the great friendships he has developed and the reward of working with people who have welcomed him into their community. 

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