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Barkindji psychology student Dan McDougal working to help the community

Jess Whaler -

Barkindji man Dan McDougal is a University of Canberra student and Westerman Jilya Institute scholarship recipient who first came to Canberra as an aspiring athlete contracted through the Canberra Raiders U18s.

After his sporting career was cut short due to several injuries, Mr McDougal went through a tough time transitioning from his athletic ambitions to life without football. Now at twenty-eight years of age, he has found a sense of purpose through the pursuit of higher education.

Mr McDougal was born in Esperance, WA, and spent his childhood in Dubbo, New South Wales, before moving to Canberra with his mother in 2012, as an eighteen-year-old chasing sporting dreams. The opportunity to play first grade football was plagued by a broken fibular, broken shoulder and a heart arrythmia diagnosis which resulted in heart surgery that same year, ultimately changing the course of his life.

The following years saw Mr McDougal worked as a public servant, a disability support worker and as an Indigenous Education Officer. During this period, he developed some unhealthy lifestyles choices, coming from a very strict athletic background, he wasn't used to the extra time and freedom. His sports background provided a strong foundation for appreciating a healthy balance in life and he now works hard to beat the sedentary ways of work and study by spending time with his family, getting outdoors and staying as active as possible.

Mr McDougal said that understanding the brain's rewards systems through his psychology studies have helped maintain a balance in his life, where he continues to reflect on his behaviour and moods.

He said that after his football career was cut short it left a big hole in his life.

"There was a lot of disappointment and embarrassment and all sorts of different things and just a lot of shame that was mixed in there and I was young and arrogant, I thought I was going to be all these things and then it was taken away from me.

"There was an adjustment period there and a lot of unhealthy behaviours and a lot of really low moods and low mental states and stuff like that, it was definitely a tough time and being equipped with what I know now, it would have been a healthier time, but it also would have been a time where I would have had a better understanding of why I was feeling those things and how to cope with them a lot better.

"I feel like separate from just physical and emotional health, understanding how you as a human work and your brain and how you are a part of something much bigger than the individual is really important and psychology helps with that."

Seven years post football, he decided he was ready to challenge himself once again. Initially, only signing up to one unit of psychology to test the waters, he soon discovered that this was in fact his destined path.

He admits that he was not the role model student in highschool, often skating by with minimal effort with sights set on footy. However, once he had decided to study as a mature aged student, his commitment was not something he took lightly.

It was 2020 and Mr McDougal was in the middle of his second year of studies, the pandemic had just hit and with his first baby on the way, his study aspirations looked likely to be cut short due to financial need. Through a google search, he soon discovered the Westerman Jilya Institute for Indigenous Mental Health and applied for a scholarship.

After an interview process he received good news with a call from Dr Tracy Westerman.

"I just cried when I found out, because I had my first my firstborn coming and we were in COVID times and everyone was struggling with the price of everything was going up and it was just such a massive relief to have this burden lifted at least partially."

He was awarded a scholarship valued at $30,000 paid throughout the completion of his studies at $10,000 per year.

"Tracy always says that Jilya is a bit like the mafia, once you're in you can't get out," he joked.

Jilya chief executive Merinda Dickson said the organisation is "like a big family and it's demonstrating that once the students join our program, they will forever be endeared as a family member".

"We may not support them directly by way of scholarship upon graduation, but they will join our alumni community and be supported in other ways," she said.

Mr McDougal, who aspires to be a clinical psychologist, also aims to contribute to the field of research.

"I want to take on that scientist practitioner model that psychology really is about and want to do research for social emotional wellbeing outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and see what's the most culturally appropriate and effective ways that we can approach mental health and healing and traditional healing methodologies and then sort of put that to practice in the clinical space as well," he said.

He is already stepping wholly into his leadership role and encourages other First Nations persons to consider higher education, stressing that there are multiple pathways to university and to consider the additional support services that are available.

"University is a very different structure to school and I feel like if you want to go to university there's a lot more support for you at university" he said.

"We are desperately in need as a people of more clinically trained and culturally responsive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists in this country to help fight some of those statistics.

"Thank you Tracy Westerman and Jilya institute for opportunities that given me I definitely wouldn't be here without them."

More information on the Jilya Institute and psychology studies is available online.

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