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Supporting the mental health of Aboriginal healthcare workers during COVID-19

Even before COVID-19 struck, health workers in NSW’s Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHS) often faced challenging work conditions that put them at increased risk of mental health issues – but the pandemic has worsened the stress they face, says Ms Sandra Bailey a senior advisor on Aboriginal health at The Sax Institute in Sydney, who is documenting the problem.

Australian Aboriginal Father and children at the beach in the early morning

Under lockdowns and restrictions, people in Aboriginal communities in NSW have struggled with the same challenges affecting the wider community, but these have often been exacerbated by other issues. ‘We know there are higher rates of chronic illnesses among Aboriginal people, and the statistics bear that out… there’s a lot of poverty, social issues, economic issues and other problems,’ Ms Bailey explains.

‘The ACCHS plays an important role in supporting and building up the community and Aboriginal healthcare workers provide a really vital service,’ she adds. ‘They are the go-to people for a lot of our community, and they also have close connections with people in the community, so they get lots of questions directed at them and they provide support.’

The increased demand for their services since the pandemic began in early 2020 has been stressful for many frontline workers around the world. The role Aboriginal healthcare workers have often had to play as informal counsellors, has been an additional, and difficult, responsibility to bear.

‘It has been important to recognise there has been an increased burden on health workers in the Aboriginal Health Services, because of the relationships they have with their patients and clients in the community, as well as the already poor health status of Aboriginal people generally.

‘During 2020, it became clear to the ACCHS that as a result of the pandemic, some workers were suffering from low morale, higher stress levels and absenteeism,’ she says. This spurred an 18-month-long, NSW Health-funded research project initiated by the ACCHS, which Ms Bailey is currently leading, to document the problem and trial a number of solutions.

The project involves staff in five different ACCHS in urban, regional and remote parts of NSW. The goal is to document the mental health of about 300 Aboriginal healthcare workers via online surveys every quarter, as well as less frequent one-on-one discussions.

One solution being trialled to help healthcare workers cope, is ‘accidental counsellor training’ to assist workers ‘who are not trained counsellors but find themselves being called on to support people in distress,’ Ms Bailey explains.

There’s also training in mental health first aid, to build skills in providing emergency assistance until professional help becomes available. Furthermore, an online safe space lets health workers share concerns anonymously with managers, that they might not otherwise have voiced.

After 18 months, the value of these services will be analysed. ‘The policy impact is really important,’ says Ms Bailey. ‘We look to see good research translate into action.’   

She hopes the project will have an impact on the provision and planning of health services, and ultimately result in an improvement in the mental health of health workers, with knock-on benefits for the quality of services they provide to patients and clients in the Aboriginal communities of NSW.

‘Looking after our health workers is critical. If we don’t, then our services can’t function properly during this crisis,’ Ms Bailey adds.

Updated 3 years ago