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Community of Practice developed for First Nations Mental Health workers

With COVID-19 creating social isolation and increasing pressure on the social and emotional wellbeing of health professionals, a need was identified to provide support to retain staff within commissioned services and build stronger relationships with and between service providers. The Hunter New England and Central Coast Primary Health Network (HNECC PHN) began this process by completing a review, redesign and tender exercise of the Indigenous Mental Health program. This process saw several new First Nations Mental Health service providers commissioned.  

To provide an effective means of communication between the new service providers and the PHN, a Community of Practice and Cultural Immersion program was established. This enabled the service providers to engage with each other and the PHN in order to build partnerships and strengthen their capacity to work with the community.

Following the development of the Community of Practice there was greater engagement among commissioned service providers supporting increased referral pathways between services, and creating a community of grass roots staff who could rely on each other and offer peer support and problem solving.

The Community of Practice also included an element of Cultural Immersion. This consisted of a day of activities and education on country with a local elder or knowledge holder. These immersion experiences have increased employee retention, cultural rejuvenation and connection to others through grounding and reflective activities undertaken whilst being on country. The key concept of this cultural experience was to allow all staff of the service providers to attend so that they could gain an understanding of the different region’s cultural experiences, impacts of colonisation and their community’s connections to culture. This exercise supported the goals of increasing the capability and capacity of our service providers and connecting them with country and healing.

The cultural immersions were built around sessions on self-care, innovative thinking and skills development. Not only did this environment build a network of support and opportunities for our service providers, but also supported employee retention and improved service delivery and sustainability amongst the First Nations communities within our region.  

One participant observed that “I came away from the day feeling very enlightened like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I don't know how to say it but to me it was like a healing, relaxed and refreshed”.

Providing opportunities to engage with service providers in an informal way has led to many changes in the way the PHN works with its service providers. These are reflected in how it commissions programs and new projects, co-designs service contracts and provides education and upskilling to staff. The Community of Practice has assisted the PHN to work with providers to develop tools that are culturally appropriate for both assessment and evaluation, and provided opportunities to work closely with communities, to support local First Nations businesses and to develop targeted grant opportunities for smaller organisations.

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