Trigger warning: This story mentions mental health.

Helen Ockerby is a Bardi and Noongar woman based in Broome. She is the Culture, Art, and Sports Manager of Garnduwa Amboorny Wirnan. Helen works alongside remote communities and townships of the Kimberley, delivering grassroots sport and recreation programs. This includes the promotion of social and emotional well-being and positive relationships. 

In June, Helen undertook the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health First Aid (AMHFA) accreditation course in Perth to become a qualified AMHFA Instructor. WA’s RRR Network made this opportunity and partnership possible and our commitment to delivering Mental Health First Aid across WA’s regions in 2021. Helen is now ready to deliver Aboriginal Mental Health First Aid to remote communities in Broome and the Kimberley region. A region that often misses out on many opportunities due to its remote location.

The AMHFA course allowed everyone to share their own lived experience. Helen said, “I was proud to be one of eleven first nation people in the room.”

“Being an Aboriginal woman and being able to facilitate this workshop to other Aboriginal people is amazing.”

Helen had been interested in doing the AMHFA training for some time, although the expense to travel to Perth from Broome, accommodation for one week, and the course itself meant it was out of reach. Helen came highly recommended through the trusting and powerful connections of the RRR Network that spans Western Australia. She was interviewed via Zoom for this exciting scholarship opportunity to the value of $5,000. 

Helen is an incredible role model for RRR women in the Kimberley and, therefore, a perfect fit for RRR Network and their Mental Health Project. 

“I am always conscious that activities, events and training opportunities tend to leave our very north and south out of the equation due to high travel costs, and this bothers me. These regions are WA’s most isolated, and they need all the support they can get” said, RRR Network CEO Kendall Galbraith.

Helen shared her region’s concerns that there is very little focus on mental health, yet it is a significant issue.

“Everybody has their own experience that they go through. Some people might not be ok on the inside, and it is important to understand how we can support people to get through daily life,” Helen said. 

“The Kimberley’s have a lot of issues; we live more remotely than the rest of Australia. Some places have limited access to resources and support systems. COVID-19 and Isolation have seen these remote communities continue to stay in lockdown with limited access to resources,” Helen said.

RRR Women in the Kimberley experience various Mental Health issues. Helen shared her own experience battling post-natal depression for four years after she had her child. There is limited access to health care services, and Helen said daily tasks became a struggle. Helen was lucky to have good people around her to support her during this time, although not everyone has this available to them. Accessing appropriate resources and services is important for these remote communities, with women facing various hardships, including not having enough jobs for Aboriginal women in the regions.

Helen hopes to be able to deliver the course to every remote community across the Kimberley region. However, she says she still has many barriers, including the language, which differs across each community and region.

Helen said, “There are over 50 different languages in the Kimberley region, and of that, they have different dialects in different communities.” 

Remote communities are spread throughout the Kimberley region. The Fitzroy valley alone has 40 communities. Helen has travelled over 200KM+ to reach some of the most remote. Some of the most isolated communities Helen has visited are Mulan in the Shire of Halls Creek, with a population of 144, 44 km to the southwest of Balgo. Balgo is also a small community linked with the Great Sandy Desert and the Tanami Desert. Balgo’s population is 359. 

Helen said the cultural & mutual respect components and having those connections to the remote communities will allow her to deliver these workshops. However, it will make it difficult with the language barrier as an interpreter will have to communicate the workshops and mental health program. Helen said many of the communities are remarkably untouched, which she said, “It is good as there is a lot of preservation of culture and language”. In saying this, she says, “It can also be to our detriment as there are a lot of resources and services lacking.”

Helen cultivates her connections through events, particularly by participating herself. She has built rapport developing sporting carnivals in communities for women to get involved in. She was able to get some conversations going and work on building trust and relationships with the women. 

 “If we can facilitate a mental health program where we can provide people with the resources to identify key people in their community that they can rely on, then we can put those support systems in place.” 

Helen hopes to reach out and empower more people to come forward and share the available services. 

“We go off the cultural framework of “Liyarn” which means a good spirit, good mind, good heart. To make sure you feel grounded and that your head and your heart are making good decisions”. 

Helen will begin to facilitate these workshops as soon as possible. We will continue to follow her journey to educate on Mental Health in the Kimberley region over the coming months.