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Mental health program focuses on role of First Nations fathers

Rachael Knowles -

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) is leading an innovative program focused on the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fathers in improving Indigenous adolescent mental health.

The program promotes parenting skills to impart knowledge and empower men in Aboriginal communities. It is funded by a $1.7 million grant from the Indigenous Health Research Fund, which is part of the Federal Government's $35 million investment into Indigenous health projects.

Run by UNSW Sydney Associate Professor Susan Rees, Lyndon Reilly, Professor Derrick Silove from UNSW Medicine and Doctor Mick Adams from Edith Cowan University, the program is to be rolled out in communities across Northern Queensland where both Rees, Reilly and Adams have cultural and community connections.

"It is so important to support men to have the confidence to parent adolescents, to use the skills they already have, let them know they have an important role," A/Professor Rees said.

"If that role is recognised as valuable to them, their families and communities, they will feel more empowered, their wellbeing is better, their mental health is better, and the positive impact will be seen on the social and emotional wellbeing of their adolescent children."

Reilly got involved with fathers' empowerment through the Royal Flying Doctors Service Strong Fathers, Strong Families project where he was a project officer.

"The intervention program within the Enabling Dads, Improving Adolescent Mental Health project, as well as a component of my PhD studies through UNSW, was established from interviews I conducted with key stakeholders within three Lower Gulf of Carpentaria communities ... and from those 31 interviews I wrote a Strong Fathers, Strong Families report for the Royal Flying Doctors Service," said Reilly.

"As part of my PhD studies, an article was published within the American Journal of Men's Health; 'Fatherhood in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities: An Examination of the Barriers and Opportunities to Strengthen the Male Parenting Roles'."

"Drawing on the information that came out of the interviews, what was strongly being suggested was that there weren't any culturally appropriate men's programs for parenting."

"Through that, I talked to men in community trying to imagine what a program would look like and from those discussions I, with guidance from my PhD Supervisor Associate Professor Susan Rees, developed this existing program."

Reilly has been administering the project in communities and has noticed the positive effect it has already been having.

"Once they have that knowledge, you know knowledge is powerful and it empowers men, they can embrace their roles as fathers. They are proud of being strong, healthy role models for their children," he said.

"It is all about giving them the opportunity to receive educational tools encompassing fatherhood.

"To have that understanding and knowledge around fathering in a cultural sense, is really important.

"Being in community and observing these men grow, those participants of the program, it is really rewarding."

The team hopes that with success, the program can continue in communities and be rolled out across the country.

"We are also planning to employ local people through community-controlled organisations and services. The aim is to train them in mental health research and group work ... so the project is intended to support and engage local people to enable them to continue doing the work after we go," said A/Professor Rees.

"It is very low cost and most of those communities, if not all, already have men's groups. This one is, however, specifically about parenting and adolescent wellbeing.

"It is not a high cost intervention, and we are able to support communities to apply for funding to continue the intervention if that is something they want to us to do."

Reilly noted the learning process is very much two-way as the men learn from one another.

"I am facilitating a paternal educational process, however, it's not about me sitting at the front and teaching these fullas, it's about the men within a yarning circle; sitting down and sharing and receiving knowledge," he said.

"It has got to be from the bottom up, at a grassroots level. If it is done that way and community-driven, they take ownership.

"UNSW might be steering the research, however participating men and communities are the mechanisms that will drive the research.

"We will train them up and support them, they are the men on the ground, and along with participating community-based organisations, will eventually take ownership of the men's culturally appropriate parenting program."

By Rachael Knowles

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