A program to produce more Aboriginal psychologists has its first graduate

Despite Australia's high rates of suicide among Indigenous people, the country has trained fewer than 250 Aboriginal psychologists to support those who are struggling. A new program hopes to change that.

Psychologist and palawa woman Jodi Jones.

Psychologist and palawa woman Jodi Jones. Source: Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

Content warning: Contains reference to suicide.

A program to increase the number of Aboriginal psychologists in Australia has produced its first graduate; a palawa woman from Tasmania who plans to work with young people at risk of suicide. 

Jodi Jones, who is from Hobart, recently became the first person to complete a degree in psychology after receiving a scholarship through the Westerman Jilya Institute for Indigenous Mental Health.

Ms Jones is understood to be among the first qualified Aboriginal psychologists in Tasmania.

"I grew up with an Aboriginal mother and a non-Aboriginal father in a family of nine," she tells SBS News.

"My mother, when she was pregnant with my elder sibling, she was advised the child would be taken from her."

curtin uni westerman schoolarship
Professor Deborah Terry, The Honourable Kim Beazley AC, Dr Tracy Westerman, and Curtin Chancellor Dr Andrew Crane with the five recipients Source: Alana Blowfield

The turning point in Ms Jones’ life came when her uncle took his own life while in custody at the age of 27. 

"I witnessed the trauma and devastation it had on my family, that it had on my mother. It was the catalyst for me to want to change things for my community." 

I witnessed the trauma and devastation it had on my family ... It was the catalyst for me to want to change things for my community. - Jodi Jones
For more than 20 years, Ms Jones worked in Tasmania’s public service, delivering culturally appropriate education, health and employment services to Aboriginal communities.

Then in 2020, she enrolled in a program run by the Westerman Jilya Institute for Indigenous Mental Health, offering psychology scholarships to Indigenous Australians.

“Being a mother, I didn’t want my children to experience the disadvantage and trauma that we had as children, and certainly that my mother’s generation experienced,” she says.

'I can fix this'

The Westerman Jilya Institute was founded by clinical psychologist and Nyamal woman Dr Tracy Westerman.

Dr Westerman says she launched the scholarship program with $50,000 of her own money after a coronial inquest into 13 suicides of Aboriginal children in Western Australia’s Kimberley region.

Dr Tracy Westerman
Clinical psychologist Dr Tracy Westerman. Source: Aaron Fernandes/SBS News

“[I was] just getting really frustrated with successive inquiries essentially all concluding the same thing, and that was that all of these children died from what was politely termed ‘system failure.’”

“So I thought, ‘I can fix this,’ and we can start a scholarship program which basically ensures that we have more Indigenous psychologists in our highest risk Indigenous communities.”

The scholarship program is funded largely through donations and contributions from government and non-government organisations. It provides $11,700 to recipients to pay for costs of living and mentorship.

“Currently we have 218 Indigenous psychologists, which basically translates to about 0.0005 per cent of all psychologists in Australia," Dr Westerman says.

"And we also have the highest rates of Indigenous child suicide in the world."

In the five years up to 2017, one in every four Australian children who died by suicide was Indigenous.

Psychologist and palawa woman Jodi Jones.
Psychologist and palawa woman Jodi Jones. Source: Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

Selected in the first group to receive a scholarship, Ms Jones recently completed a degree in psychology at Charles Sturt University whilst working full time.

She is the first trained psychologist to graduate through the program and hopes to use her qualification to help young Tasmanians struggling with mental health.

“The issues that we face here are really no different to those in other states and territories. There are issues with high rates of suicide, especially among young people,” she says.

“Health institutions have historically been part of the oppression of Aboriginal peoples. I want to be part of a solution that’s led by Aboriginal perspectives, not merely interpreted by non-Aboriginal people.”

Suicide prevention concert

On Friday, which marks World Suicide Prevention Day, the Jilya Institute will hold a fundraising concert at the University of Western Australia, featuring artists John Butler, Gina Williams & Guy Ghouse, and Kobi Morrison.

In its first year, the Jilya Institute provided 15 scholarships to aspiring Indigenous psychologists across the country but had to turn away 19 would-be applicants.

“It's heartbreaking that we had to turn most of them away. What I want us to get to a stage where I don't turn any of them away,” Dr Westerman says.

“This year we have 30 applicants and so currently now I'm just trying to find enough funding for them all.”

The Jilya World Suicide Prevention Day Fundraising Concert will be held at Winthrop Hall, University of Western Australia, on 10 September. Tickets are available .

To find out more about the scholarship program visit

Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, visit or find an . Resources for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can be found at .

The Tasmanian Aboriginal language, palawa kani, uses only lowercase letters.

5 min read
Published 10 September 2021 at 10:36am
By Aaron Fernandes