Nicole Laupepa, Cultural Development Manager at Youth Off The Streets and the Aboriginal Cultural Connections team have been hard at work in Dubbo in regional NSW, working alongside local services supporting families and young people struggling with mental ill-health and other challenges during the COVID-19 crisis. Aboriginal people make up 25% of the population in the nine areas in western NSW that have been most impacted by COVID-19, including 19% of the population in Dubbo. We spoke to Nicole about the work that the team is doing.

The Cultural Connections team comprises specialised Aboriginal counsellors, mental health workers and Elders who are best equipped to respond to the urgent and evolving need in the community, in practical and strategic terms. The team, all from regional NSW, have been working in partnership with the Aboriginal Lands Council, the local Aboriginal Community and NSW Police, to ensure the First Nations voice is heard in the community response. In the immediate crisis, their support included providing food parcels and personal protective equipment to the community and addressing vaccine hesitancy and lack of access to vaccines. They also offered NSW Health resources to establish a mobile vaccination hub.

Rikka Lamb is Youth Off The Streets’ new Aboriginal Mental Health Advisor and part of the Cultural Support team, which also includes Aunty Pat, Cultural Development Advisor. Rikka said: “I was born in Dubbo so I have a lot of connections here, which is why it’s great to give back to the community and for Youth Off The Streets to be here as well. A lot of our young people can get embarrassed or feel ashamed to admit they need help or that they may be experiencing some issues. Don’t be ashamed. Reach out to your support system.”

The impacts of COVID-19 on Aboriginal communities

In September this year, more than 60% of COVID-19 cases in western NSW were First Nations people. Many First Nations families in these communities lack access to the internet and technology and there was a lot of misinterpretation and misinformation around COVID-19. NSW Health is doing amazing work, but there has been a sense of fear and mistrust from the Aboriginal community.

For families without access to online learning students were asked to go to school twice a week to collect their schoolwork which was a means for the virus to spread.

The deaths in the community have triggered depression and anxiety, further exacerbated by the inability for the community to come together for Sorry Business, which is the culturally appropriate way of grieving for First Nations peoples.

Looking ahead

Longer term, the team are partnering with the Aboriginal Lands Council, to provide a culturally appropriate mental health response that is tailored to Aboriginal youth and are working collaboratively with the relevant agencies and community groups to provide a local service that supports this community to get back on its feet. In the longer term, that means loss and grieving for loved ones. The team are heartened by the sense of community and generosity of the people of regional NSW, and are there to work with them and provide whatever support they can.

About the Cultural Connections Program

Youth Off The Streets Aboriginal Cultural Connections provides a range of culturally appropriate services that address 12 of the Closing The Gap targets. The program aims to support young people remain in schooling, as well as developing and applying a culturally safe model of casework across all of Youth Off The Streets frontline programs. To achieve this, the program will develop a community of practise with Aboriginal-lead organisations, to collaborate with and support our Aboriginal young people, their families, and communities.


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