• Professor Pat Dudgeon (University of Western Australia)Source: University of Western Australia
Australia's Indigenous psychologists talk about why we need more Indigenous recruits to join the sector.
Laura Morelli

16 Sep 2016 - 4:24 PM  UPDATED 14 Sep 2017 - 9:55 AM

Professor Pat Dudgeon

From Bardi people of the Kimberley area in Western Australia, Professor Dudgeon is Australia's first Aboriginal psychologist.

NITV: Why did you become involved in Psychology?

“I wanted to do psychology so I could help people. I thought there’s a lot of people black and white, who don’t live fulfilling lives because they don’t have an opportunity to be healed or heard, so that’s why I got involved.

They always say you do psychology to either help yourself or help others - so my reason is to help others. But it was also to ensure Indigenous people were included in any discussions of mental health and healing.”

Interest: Indigenous suicide prevention

My particular passion has been in Indigenous suicide prevention and I think that there needs to be a reform in how programs are funded and how Indigenous communities are able to develop and initiate programs.

What we really need to do is support indigenous community initiatives and help them develop further so they can address the problems from a local manner, with the people who are actually affected by the issues.

NITV: What do Australian psychologists need to focus on?

We’re very committed to increasing the number of Indigenous psychologists but also to ensure our non-Indigenous colleagues are aware of how to work appropriately with others in the community. We need to give them a better understanding into the Indigenous culture, peoples and history.

NITV: What was it like to hear an apology from the Australian Psychologist's Society?

To hear that apology, it was truly amazing; everyone was quite overwhelmed by it. I’m so proud of the APS; they’re the first organization to do anything like this. It was very specific, deep and meaningful.


Tanja Hirvonen

From the Jaru mob in the Kimberley in the Northern Territory, Hirvonen is the executive support officer of the Australian Indigenous Psychologist association. 

NITV: Why did you become involved in Psychology?

“For me this is something I’ve always wanted to be involved in, but it all started when I started to really see the disparities in rural and mental health as well as social and emotional wellbeing.

To be completely honest though I didn’t know any of this was possible until I started researching websites and saw Pat Dudgeon - by seeing others achieve completing psychology degrees -showed me that it was achievable.

I feel now that I have finally achieved completing the degree it’s a 'pay it forward' way that we have to try and make sure other Indigenous people who are looking at psychology as a profession is achievable. I would have never thought it was achievable unless I saw other people do it too.

Interest: Rural and remote practice – working in areas that aren’t urban

There’s limited services in rural and remote areas, in saying that 60% of the Aboriginal population are in urban areas however when we look at those who are disadvantaged and have bigger issues it’s the people in rural areas. They have less access to health and wellbeing services.

NITV: What do Australian psychologists need to focus on?

One of the biggest issues is that there are not enough Indigenous psychologists. We need to support organisations like the Australian Indigenous Psychologists association, so that they are supporting Indigenous psychologists and non-Indigenous psychologists to make a difference.  We also need to make sure the ways we work aren’t putting further stress on people.

There really needs to be more Indigenous psychologists to provide that cultural lens and a social understanding. When these Aboriginal people need to talk, they usually request an Aboriginal person to talk to because they find it easier to relate to someone of their own culture. I find myself as an Indigenous psychologist that many non-Indigenous workers ask for advice and what is deemed appropriate, so there also needs to be more training in place to assist all members of our society. 

NITV: What was it like to hear an apology from the Australian Psychologist's Society?

This was one of the biggest gatherings we’ve ever had at the APS. There were 1507 people registered for this conference so you could imagine how busy the room was.   

After the apology, many of the psychologists working in field provided feedback and what exactly it meant for them. This was so great to see so many people talking about the aftermath.

I think Indigenous and non-Indigenous psychologists really resonated with the apology, they felt it was a good time and about time.


Tania Dalton

From the Wathaurong-Gunditjmara mob in Victoria, Dalton is the Chairperson of Australian Indigenous Psychologist association 

NITV: Why did you become involved in Psychology?

I was working with the Department of Employment Education and Training at the time; when l was encouraged and supported by community members and my mentor Lois Atkinson to apply for a Scholarships and return to study in the field of psychology.

There was a real need for more Aboriginal people to work in the mental health field. Initially l wanted to work as a Psychologist to improve education and employment outcomes, through developing more culturally appropriate screening and diagnostic measures. I then realised how broad the Field of Psychology was and concentrated on counselling- adapting models and approaches to be more culturally appropriate/responsive and trauma informed approaches/models. 

I also wanted to educate my non-indigenous peers/ workforce about working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with strength based approaches to assist in more positive outcomes/& healing, through adapting practice and service provision models. 

Interest: Indigenous family violence + social and emotional wellbeing

I have been with the Indigenous family violence strategy in Victoria for the past 12 years. I work with Local and Regional Aboriginal communities to develop programs through the to raise awareness, prevent and address Family violence in community. I am particularly invested in raising awareness about working in culturally appropriate ways with Aboriginal people, educating mainstream agencies in culturally safe practice and service delivery.

The Social and Emotional Wellbeing Framework that has been renewed is a holistic framework l use to help inform my work in this area. Since 2010 I have been part of a team of AIPA Members, who have delivered Cultural Competence Workshops to over 1000 participants from Mental Health the workforce nationally, the workshop content is annually reviewed and updated, is based on the renewed SEWB Framework (that is a strength based, holistic, culturally informative multidimensional model) and informs practitioners about how to adapt Focused Psychological Strategies to be more culturally relevant when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This work is very important as it provides much needed skills to a workforce and means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait people can expect to have more positive mental health outcomes due to this workforce education. This workshop has recently been adapted to the needs of the APS workforce and delivered to 60 members of the APS National Office workforce and the APS Board. 

NITV: What do Australian psychologists need to focus on?

Australian Psychologists need to be aware and focus on being informed about working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, using culturally responsive, trauma informed and strength based models in their practice and service provision.

They need to engage with Australian Indigenous Psychologists when seeking information, about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health.  AIPA’s goal is to encourage and support more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be Psychologists our numbers are growing, as are the accomplishments of our members in the Psychology field. Invite us into the conversation, to share our knowledge and expertise to national and international Psychology.

"We only have 100 Indigenous psychologists – we need to do more to promote this as a career choice and provide support so we have more Indigenous psychologists." 

The Apology by the APS acknowledges the past injustices perpetrated by the profession towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. I particularly was inspired by the Apology and felt very heartened by the promise it makes to be more culturally responsive and appropriate in practice and service provision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That APS will positively support/ encourage/ engage with AIPA (who has been formed since 2008) in promoting Psychology as a profession to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, assist us to bring our voices to the conversation representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health matters.

NITV: What was it like to hear an apology from the Australian Psychologist's Society?

As Chair of AIPA, l was pleased when l learnt that APS members and Board members felt that an Apology was needed. It was also very empowering for Pat, Tanja and myself to be consulted and included in the discussion about the Apology. I feel very proud the Apology occurred and was honoured to work with the people that made this possible.

I feel very positive about the future because the Apology also committed to promote self determination, have a joint commitment to increasing the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Psychologists, equity of professional standing and opportunity, along with… Ultimately, through our combined efforts, this will be a future where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enjoy the same social and emotional wellbeing as other Australians’.


If you or someone you know is having difficulty with mental health, please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue Support Service 1300 224 636 or Headspace on 1800 650 890.