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Donna Stanley honoured for decades of work in Indigenous mental health

Aaron Bloch -

Donna Stanley has been recognised for her leadership in improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health with an Australian Mental Health Prize for 2022.

The acting executive director for Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing for the Western NSW Local Health District, Ms Stanley has spent the last 30 years as a proud advocate for the improvement of First Nations' mental health.

The Gunggarri Umby woman told National Indigenous Times she was "overwhelmed and humbled at the same time to receive the award".

She paid respects to her brother who she lost to suicide nearly 30 years ago.

"I've truly got a sense that he's brought me on this journey, that his death wasn't in vain and that he has actually guided me on this path," she said.

Ms Stanley spoke about the work she's currently doing in Western New South Wales and noted the long-term impacts COVID is having on her community.

She said "long COVID" meant some people are still "quite debilitated in terms of what's happening for them" despite testing positive some time ago.

"COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the health and wellbeing in our local health district in Western NSW. I'm very proud of the response of our team at the height of the pandemic."

"Every Aboriginal person who tested positive for COVID was allocated an Aboriginal Support officer who would make daily contact with individuals and their families."

The support officers worked to ensure food security and medication were provided.

With the recent spike in case numbers and the new guidelines without the need for isolation, Ms Stanley said they weren't seeing as many presentations to the appropriate services from the community.

She expressed her concern that "at the minute with people out there in the community, there's a lot of people who would have COVID who wouldn't be actually getting the right support".

Ms Stanley said misconceptions about COVID remain in the community, which is leading to low vaccination rates.

Despite this, the Care in the Community team is continuing to provide valuable "integrated care and better-planned health care looking after our long-term COVID patients".

Ms Stanley was previously a leader and coordinator of the Aboriginal Mental Health First Aid program where she trained instructors nationwide to improve the mental health literacy of her community.

"It's aimed at helping people to understand what are the some of the signs and symptoms of mental health or mental health conditions," she said.

"It helps first aiders to be able to identify that there's something happening and then work out what's the right person to refer or get that person support from."

The program goes beyond the standard Mental Health First Aid Program and speaks to social and emotional wellbeing, addressing the impacts of "contemporary and historical losses and how that impacts how our communities and individuals function today", including the effects of transgenerational trauma.

Ms Stanley commented that the plans to tackle racism through the Reconciliation Action Plan are a key area for the Western NSW Local Health District.

"We know that this thing around unconscious bias certainly happens in our health facilities. We want to work hard to address that," she said.

"When I accepted the prize I put a call to action to everybody in the room and those that were in the room virtually that every day when we sit down with our families, our communities, our colleagues, that there should be those discussions about what we're actually going to do to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people."

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