The National Family Wellbeing Forum: Sharing stories on the journey to empowerment

    This is a story about saving lives. It’s a story about regaining control. It’s a story about overturning generations of disempowerment. Above all it’s a story of hope.

    This is the story of Family Wellbeing.

    By Les Baird.

    Family Wellbeing is a social and emotional wellbeing program, designed by Indigenous people, that helped a group of us, living in Far North Queensland, to take control of our health services and help our community’s struggle with suicide. Since 2001, when I was the CEO of Gurriny Yealamucka Health Service in Yarrabah, I have been working with Professor Komla Tsey and a team of university researchers to facilitate the Family Wellbeing program, to involve community members in researching the impact of the program, and to publish our findings so that other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around Australia learn about our experiences.

    It’s been a phenomenal journey and I believe, without it, positive change in Yarrabah would not have followed the path it did. What’s so great about Family Wellbeing? Well it’s not about outsiders coming to our rescue. It is about rebuilding our own agency for a fulfilled life, something that has been denied to so many of us Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for too long – it’s about empowerment.

    Family Wellbeing starts with a short course to teach us about meeting our basic human needs like shelter, exercise, food, sleep. It also tackles bigger questions like identity, sexual expression, respect for self and others, life-long learning and connection to something greater than ourselves. It teaches problem-solving skills that help us to build resilience and deal with managing relationships, conflicts, addiction and violence. We then use this empowerment to not only become researchers, but to bring community members together and form groups to take action on larger social issues that matter to us like housing, school attendance and health service provision. Through our publications and advocacy, news has spread about Family Wellbeing in the last 18 or so years, and demand for it from communities across the country and overseas has grown.

    To advocate with a collective voice, in 2017 we opened up the virtual National Centre for Family Wellbeing, based at the Cairns Institute, and I became the CEO. Our aim is to be a coordination site, to support the sustainable implementation of the program in various communities and to document, and share, the evidence of its impact using participatory quality improvement processes. Sharing our experience of what works is critical. We train and mentor those working with children, youth and families to embed Family Wellbeing into their services and programs.

    Last November we hosted the National Family Wellbeing Forum at the Cairns Institute, on Irrukanji country. The aim of the meeting was sharing with our brothers and sisters from all nations and to talk our common language: Family Wellbeing and being Indigenous in Australia. What was different about this to any other academic gathering happening around the country? First of all, we made it an Indigenous space.

    As Aboriginal people, we have always valued sharing stories and information across this continent, that’s how we’ve survived. So we wanted to create a yarning circle, where we could talk openly and respectfully. Secondly, as we are not a fully-funded program, our National Centre has very little money and my work there is currently voluntary. It’s a similar story for our partners around the country who came to the forum. For most of the organisations, funding for their Family Wellbeing work is often precarious, and they can’t easily afford travel. We came to the forum from urban, regional and remote locations, on shoestring budgets, because we knew it was important to meet and mark the journey we’ve been sharing.

    There were about 59 of us, mostly Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. We had representatives from organisations that were using Family Wellbeing as part of their services, as well as educational institutions who were providing training for Family Wellbeing, and researchers from different universities. All states and territories in Australia were represented, except for Tasmania; one participant came from Papua New Guinea (PNG) and one academic came from Taiwan to investigate applying Family Wellbeing in Indigenous communities over there.

    I want to share a few stories from the forum so people understand the far-reaching impact and applicability of this trauma-informed program. Act For Kids is an organisation in Cairns that targets child abuse. They have safe houses located in five Cape York communities run by trained local child protection workers who assist with preparing parents for their children’s return. Family Wellbeing has been used as workforce development course for these workers as well as all staff members in all levels of the organisation. They are so convinced of its impact that they are now embedding Family Wellbeing as a core philosophy affecting all work practices.

    Another organisation, Gindaja Treatment and Healing Centre at Yarrabah, helps people with drug and alcohol addiction. They use Family Wellbeing as part of 12-week residential rehabilitation program for about 80 clients per year who come from all parts of Australia to seek treatment. They also want to make Family Wellbeing their Model of Care and have even restructured the organisation to align with this model.

    Then there is the Mallee District Aboriginal Services in Mildura, Victoria. What was so impressive about them is that they use Family Wellbeing for a whole range of groups from high school students to community Elders, adult men and new mums. My favourite story is about a group of older aunties in the Elders group. Through the Family Wellbeing course they’ve talked about their shared struggle with the pokies, seeing too much money disappear and losing control of their lives. Together, supported by their Family Wellbeing skills, these aunties are finding new ways to spend their spare time, finding more affirming hobbies than gambling.

    We were blown away by the impact of a Family Wellbeing program on a group of young Aboriginal men who were at risk of entering the juvenile justice system in NSW. Nigel Millgate from the Central Coast Primary Care in Gosford adapted Family Wellbeing into a youth program incorporating culture, sport and mentoring for young people who’ve been struggling with school and employment. One of the big issues for those guys was identity – growing up fair-skinned, they could be mistaken for white, but Nigel saw the importance of owning their Aboriginal identity and culture. They had regular outings with local Elders and camps on country. This built their pride and the value they saw in taking ownership of their lives. Some of these kids have decided to go back to school or to do apprenticeships. This program has been supporting about 75 young people each year.

    Then Russel Kitau of the University of PNG shared how he started teaching Family Wellbeing as a subject in the university’s Public Health course. Staff and students then trialled it in the villages as a way of dealing with interpersonal and gender-based violence. Russel completed a Doctor of Education on the PNG program at the Cairns Institute in 2018.

    For all of us who work in different settings across the country, hearing these experiences generated new ideas and gave us inspiration that the program was delivering diverse and positive results for many of our communities. We then heard from the organisations involved in the training and education side of Family Wellbeing; TAFE SA, Adelaide, where the Family Wellbeing training first became accredited in 1993; Bachelor Institute, NT; and the Aboriginal Health Council of WA, the peak body for 22 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services in that state.

    The last session of the forum was dedicated to Research and Evaluation.

    Mary Whiteside of La Trobe University and Helen Klieve of Griffith University presented some of the research findings from these different sites. A participant from an Aboriginal health service in Victoria said the program is, “easy to follow because it is about everyone, every single one of us, we can all relate to all of the topics”. A public health student in PNG, said “I am a changed person, because this course helped me to evaluate myself and at the same time, has empowered me to do more for other people”. And this powerful statement of change was observed in one young Aboriginal male participant in NSW, “he’s joined a gym, he’s given up cigarette smoking and I don’t think he does drugs and he looks really healthy”. Apart from these interviews they also conducted quantitative evaluations, measuring personal change through the use of validated mental wellbeing scales. The results reflected the statements quoted above.

    The final presentation showed us how the work each of us is doing in Family Wellbeing feeds into the bigger picture of research on mental health and suicide prevention. The findings from our programs have been published in international journals and are some of a handful of evaluated social and emotional wellbeing interventions that target Indigenous people. We walked away with an appreciation that we are part of a bigger movement and that the research we help produce can influence policy.

    To wrap things up we formed yarning circles to discuss what the forum meant for us. People said it was so important to acknowledge that we are part of a wider Family Wellbeing family and to meet face-to-face to hear each other’s struggles and achievements. By coming together we learnt that, collectively, we hold a strong commitment to keep the positive momentum of Family Wellbeing going.

    Twenty years ago I was working in Yarrabah when I met Komla Tsey and heard, for the first time, of something called Family Wellbeing. I am thankful every day that we started a collaboration. As Komla, myself and others sat in that forum, you couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces.

    Every presentation was remarkable – seeing the impact of the program right across the country. We were proud that Family Wellbeing has spread to many other communities here and overseas, we have a virtual National Centre, and the demand and evidence for the effectiveness of our work continues to grow.

    The Family Wellbeing forum will become a regular event, and a necessary one for propelling those who are on the Family Wellbeing journey to keep going. We are committed to maintaining the forum as an Indigenous space, a forum for our people to come together and share important information, as we’ve done for millennia. Family Wellbeing has impacted on many of us personally and professionally – it has changed my life in numerous ways and led me to be able to share this story with you.

    I wish to acknowledge the forum organising committee (Taha Hunter, Cath Brown, Leigh-Ann Onnis, Mary Whiteside, Helen Klieve, Yvonne Cadet-James and Komla Tsey) for their hard work and the Cairns Institute for hosting the National Family Wellbeing Forum. This story is supported by the Lowitja Institute and NHMRC-funded Centre for Research Excellence in Integrated Quality Improvement. I thank Niru Perera for her input into this story.

    Les Baird is a Bardi man mixed with Jaru and Bunaba, born in Broome, WA. He lived in Yarrabah for many years and was previously the CEO of Gurriny Yealamucka Health Service. He is now the voluntary CEO of the National Centre for Family Wellbeing (@ncfwbtweets) based at the Cairns Institute.


    Map showing delivery of Family Wellbeing training around Australia

    Attendees at the Family Wellbeing Forum

    Les Baird (behind lectern) standing with presenters from Family Wellbeing sites around Australia

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