Leading Indigenous psychologist Dr Tracy Westerman has partnered with Curtin University to launch the Dr Tracy Westerman Aboriginal Psychology Scholarship Program.

Five Indigenous students received the inaugural scholarships at the official launch at Perth’s Government House last month.

Each $10,000 scholarship is designed to support Indigenous students studying psychology at Curtin at undergraduate or postgraduate levels, who want to continue their work in remote and rural communities after completing their studies.

A Curtin graduate herself, Dr Westerman will be personally mentoring the scholarship recipients who are all studying a Bachelor of Psychology at the university.

Dr Westerman said she wants to give the scholars a platform to attend conferences and workshops, meet other professionals in their field, and develop their confidence as psychology professionals.

“Through this program, we are supporting Aboriginal students with rural and remote connections to become psychologists, skilled in Indigenous-specific mental health, suicide prevention and intervention programs,” Dr Westerman said.

One recipient from Midland, Taylah Thompson-Patfield, said she felt very humbled and appreciative of Dr Westerman’s generosity.

“There’s a lot of trauma in my family blood line. I was inspired by my family to get an understanding of them more so, and then I actually really enjoy psychology in general as well.”
– Taylah Thompson-Patfield is one of the scholarship recipients.

Ms Thompson-Patfield said the scholarship will help more than just herself.

“It’s hard for me, I have my two younger brothers that live with me. This will help not just me it will help my family, it will help my brothers as well,” Ms Thompson-Patfield said.

The scholarship will allow the young student to afford her rent and university books, get her car serviced so she can drive her brothers to school, and buy her brothers new school clothes and give them school lunches.

The other scholarship recipients include Saira (Maheen) Rind, Nikki McKenzie, Yasmin Hunter and Cheyenne Conway.

The program has been funded in seven months without the help of the government, with Dr Westerman raising $340,000 from private and corporate donors, and personally donating $50,000 of her own money over a period of five years.

Dr Westerman said it’s about people power and encouraging people to donate as much as they can.

“It’s an incredible story in terms of Australians coming together on this issue to say this is not acceptable, that we have this situation [of Indigenous youth suicide] occurring in our backyards,” Dr Westerman said.

The psychologist said the scholarship program will address the significant gaps that bereaved families of young Indigenous people have been identifying for decades.

“They just don’t have specialist psychologists or mental health professionals up there [in remote and rural communities],” Dr Westerman said.

“The great thing is, these scholarship recipients want to go back to their communities to work.”

WA Governor Kim Beazley attended the launch and agreed the program will help address the alarming rates of suicides in remote and rural Indigenous communities.

“This program will create the cadre of competent Indigenous professionals who will turn this around,” Governor Beazley said.

Ms Thompson-Patfield is passionate about Indigenous mental health care and told NIT she feels an understanding of Aboriginal culture is missing from mental health care.

“I feel the healthcare system is still quite traditional. Aboriginal people have lost a lot of trust in our healthcare system, they don’t trust health professionals, just from the past,” Ms Thompson-Patfield said.

“I think if we can get more Aboriginal people with knowledge and cultural understanding, to work with Aboriginal people, it would definitely help close the gap in Aboriginal mental health and Aboriginal health in general.”

The young psychology student said her family was what first inspired her to study psychology.

“There’s a lot of trauma in my family blood line. I was inspired by my family to get an understanding of them more so, and then I actually really enjoy psychology in general as well,” Ms Thompson-Patfield said.

After her family, Ms Thompson-Patfield named Dr Tracy Westerman and Pat Dudgeon as two of her biggest influences in choosing to pursue psychology.

“When I learnt about Tracy Westerman, she was a very big influence,” Ms Thompson-Patfield said.

“I’ve read a lot of articles from Pat Dudgeon as well for Aboriginal health, Aboriginal psychology. Definitely those two people, I enjoy reading their articles and their perspectives on things.”

Ms Thompson-Patfield said the program launch made her feel very special and that she enjoyed meeting Dr Westerman and the other scholarship recipients.

“[Dr Westerman] is just as bright and has such a good vibe in person as she does when you watch her on YouTube,” Ms Thompson-Patfield said.

The scholarship recipient hopes the future of Indigenous mental health will mean helping Indigenous Australians heal from intergenerational trauma.

“I think trauma is so prevalent even in our young people today, from what their grandparents experienced,” Ms Thompson-Patfield said.

“It’s the way people cope with trauma. I think if people learn to cope better, [have] better strategies in coping with their trauma, it might help Aboriginal people heal as a whole.”

Dr Westerman said people at the program launch told her that the young recipients had a “real aura about them.” She herself had nothing but kind words for the scholars.

“It shouldn’t have surprised me that they were as exceptional as they are … I should’ve expected that they were all going to be incredible young people,” Dr Westerman said.

“What was really overwhelming as I was going through the applications was that these kids have as many barriers as I had when I was going through my studies.”

Dr Westerman said she is hoping to expand the scholarship program to other universities in the future but that right now, the scholarship recipients “just need to have people’s arms wrapped around them” to provide them as much support as possible during their studies.

“These students represent the future of our communities and it is a privilege to be able to support their dreams to improve the mental health and well-being of Indigenous people,” Dr Westerman said.

By Hannah Cross