As part of Mental Health Week WA, National Indigenous Times is bringing the conversation front and centre to its readers. If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the resources at the end of this article.
Now one of WA’s biggest young mental health advocates, Noongar Yamatji youth social worker Brooke Blurton stumbled into the mental health sector purely by chance.
After being made redundant and living out of home with no source of income, Ms Blurton found herself going through a hard time and feeling confused about what the future would hold.
“That was a bit of a dark time, but then I actually applied for a job at headspace [Midland],” Ms Blurton said.
“I got introduced to youth mental health [there] and working with young kids who experience [mental health issues] and having my own experiences … that’s generally how it came about, and then after that I found a passion within it.”
“I love seeing young people progress [from] when they start in that first appointment … and then seeing them and how much they improve and how much happier they are [at] the end. I love that process and … seeing that.”
The young social worker then spent some time in the eastern states and worked as a mentor for young people during traineeships.
“They didn’t have a component of mental health, so I brought my own skills to the table and that awareness,” Ms Blurton said.
After returning to Perth, Ms Blurton worked in CARE (Curriculum and Reengagement in Education) Schools – continuing her passion for working with young people.
“Young people are the next generation … the next leaders, and if they’re struggling or don’t have the coping skills to deal with life, how are they going to know their true potential of what they could be?” Ms Blurton said.
Resilience and kindness
Ms Blurton’s own experiences with mental health began early, when she and her siblings lost their mother to suicide at a very young age.
“Our family really struggled to deal with that and to face the facts around that. We were so unaware so there was so much confusion,” Ms Blurton said.
“My brothers have [also] experienced [mental health issues] and I’ve seen it firsthand and then I went through my own mental health journey, but I know with all those experiences … it definitely makes you stronger … you become so much more resilient to things.”
“Big things in another person’s world don’t seem so big to you, and I know no problem is too big or too small … that’s what I really encourage. Everyone is going through their battles.”
Ms Blurton said she often thinks about the saying, ‘Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.’
“It means that everyone has a story … if you can be kind to everyone, kindness goes a long way,” Ms Blurton said.
Healing cultural loss
From her experience working in the mental health space, Ms Blurton said Indigenous Australians’ experiences of mental health are quite different to that of non-Indigenous Australians.
“Non-Aboriginal people are more willing to talk about their issues and their circumstances. A lot of the young Aboriginal people would come to the first session [at headspace] and not come back for the rest of the treatment plan,” Ms Blurton said.
The youth worker said she finds mental health is a sensitive topic in Indigenous communities and that a lot of trauma and abuse is normalised, so young people are less inclined to speak out.
“Some young people go through a lot of trauma and abuse and that’s the norm for them, it’s normalised to go through those experiences … they don’t think that it’s a problem,” Ms Blurton said.
According to Ms Blurton, a lot of young Aboriginal people don’t realise there are more components to who they are.
“When you look at a person’s social and emotional wellbeing … an Aboriginal person needs connection to country, and to land, ancestors … [these are] huge components that Aboriginal people need but unfortunately some have lost.”
Speaking of her own experience, Ms Blurton said she had also faced that loss of connection to culture and land.
“I wasn’t on my land for so long and I lost that connection because I lost my mum and nan. So, I couldn’t be educated and I couldn’t share the knowledge.”
Now Ms Blurton finds herself frequently working with Elders and is slowly rebuilding her connection to culture.
The 24-year-old also said there is a huge gap between connecting Indigenous youth and Elders that needs to be addressed.
“We need to teach young people to be self-determined to go out and connect with Elders themselves,” Ms Blurton said.
“That’s some of my passion, trying to connect that gap.”
To reconnect young people and Elders, Ms Blurton said it’s first about creating awareness and giving Aboriginal young people representation and role models to look up to.
“I guess for myself being in the profile [of Aboriginal young people], I’m just a normal youth worker, I’m put on this pedestal or in this position bigger than what I think that I am, but it gives young people the representation that they never have seen before,” Ms Blurton said.
Growing up, Ms Blurton’s role models were her teachers – who she remains connected with today.
“They are my real-life role models, they showed me what hard work was like. They actually taught me the responsibility that I had as an Aboriginal young woman – and I think that’s huge.”
Encouraging the strength to reach out
Like her journey into mental health, Ms Blurton’s recent appointment as an R U OK? Ambassador was also unexpected.
“It’s a really funny way how it came about … I reached out to a friend who worked on the [R U OK?] Tour and I wanted to help out, I originally just put my hand up [to volunteer],” Ms Blurton said.
“When they had asked, I was completely mind blown because I am a huge advocate for R U OK? and have been throughout working with young people.”
Ms Blurton said touring with R U OK? has been an incredible experience.
“To be an ambassador, it’s a huge responsibility … you’re using your own experiences to help encourage others to seek help and to reach out. And I think it’s easy to say, ‘Reach out,’ but it’s harder to do. Not a lot of people have that courage and that strength to actually do it.”
When asked about criticisms of R U OK? Day as tokenistic in mental health work, Ms Blurton said it shouldn’t just be a one-day event.
“Working with youth … it is not just a one-day thing, you’re asking if someone’s okay every single day,” Ms Blurton said.
“It’s not really about the ‘R U OK?’ phrase or word … it’s about the conversation you’re opening for people.”
Passion for people
Although Ms Blurton is known for her appearance on the 2018 season of The Bachelor, it’s an identifier she hopes to shed in favour of her work in the Aboriginal youth space.
“I have such a huge platform … I don’t always want to be known for being on The Bachelor or being that girl that went on the show,” Ms Blurton said.
The youth worker said she hopes to use her platform and her story as a tool to help young people navigate mental health.
“It’s about filling their toolkit with skills and different things, that they have those coping mechanisms … I would like to develop a program [to facilitate those mechanisms], which is in the [works],” Ms Blurton hinted.
Despite remaining tight-lipped about her future projects, Ms Blurton was steadfast that young people need to be given choices and agency.
“It is so broad because every young person is so different and diverse. I find that it always comes down to identity, where they fit into this world – what do they want to do in this world? A loss of that is the main reason why they experience mental health problems,” Ms Blurton said.
“Young people need to know there’s not just one way of life.”
While working with young people brings Ms Blurton much joy on the daily, she said her absolute favourite part of the job is seeing progress.
“Seeing [young people] achieve something, that could be so small in someone else’s eyes, but for them it’s just massive and you see their face light up … it blows my mind,” Ms Blurton said.
Much like the young people she spoke of, Ms Blurton’s face lit up when discussing her work. It’s clear she holds a deep passion for it.
“It’s my favourite part of my job … literally just gave me goose bumps.”
Filling your cup up first
In the spirit of Mental Health Week WA, Ms Blurton bestowed her go-to mental health tips.
The youth worker suggested getting outside and said it becomes really important to check in with yourself, even if you’re checking in with someone else.
“It’s filling your cup up before you pour out to others.”
“I always start with doing what you love. I always think being a little bit selfish [by] taking the time out to do something that you’ve always wanted to or something that you just really enjoy doing,” Ms Blurton said.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health, call or visit the online resources below:
- Lifeline – 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au/forums
- MensLine – 1300 789 978
- Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet – healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au
By Hannah Cross