New Indigenous Academic Advisor’s vast life experience to benefit La Trobe Rural Health School

David ‘Tarnda’ Copley says when health professionals understand and embrace Indigenous health and wellbeing practices, everyone benefits. “Because we’ve got more and more people looking for holistic alternatives, and we’ve got more and more refugees coming to this country who are trauma based, the same as Indigenous Australians,” he says.

“We’ve been doing health for over 100,000 years, we’re not here by accident. We have some really good health knowledge that’s helped us survive and prosper.”

David is a Kauna Peremangk man from South Australia, and the La Trobe Rural Health School’s first Indigenous Academic Advisor. His brief is to embed the teaching of Indigenous health practices into health courses, and boost enrolment of Indigenous students.

David arrived in Bendigo this month, straight from lecturing in mental health and Indigenous health at Flinders University. He has also worked at the coalface of both disciplines. His research areas are Indigenous cancer and mental health and he has been involved in the Indigenous Quit Smoking Campaign since 2010.

“I’ve been really, really lucky, I’ve been to over 80 Indigenous communities across Australia and had the opportunity to work with them on lots of things and that’s given me a really good insight into not only the cultural ways with people’s health but also the impact of lack of access to services,” David says.

It’s unique experience La Trobe’s Rural Health School is set to benefit from. “There’s quite a number of hats to this,” David says of his new endeavour.

“One of my first agendas is to get out to the four rural campuses (Bendigo, Mildura, Shepparton and Albury-Wodonga) and talk to people about what they’re looking for in regards to Indigenous content. It’s already embedded into nursing as a core topic, but how do we put that into the other disciplines?

“The other thing is to engage with the Indigenous health services in these locations, for two reasons: we need more Indigenous kids to come to La Trobe to become nurses or ambulance officers, or physios, because our numbers are low − and that’s the same across most universities − and we need all our students to be doing placements at these services.”

While David’s professional experience will equip him well for the task at hand, so will his early life.

“I was a high school dropout,” he says. “I went to year 10 but I never passed it. I had a lot of the stuff Aboriginal kids have; the bullying, the fights, so I think by the time I was 17/18 I was pretty angry with the world. The only thing I’ve never done is drugs or drinking, although I hung around with a lot of people who did. I hung around the streets of St Kilda for three years when I was younger.

“I had various jobs; in fast food, transport, the building industry, a whole range of stuff, and then I got a job as a carer. It was okay but then somebody dared me by saying, ‘it’s a pity you’re not educated because you could go to university’. And I thought, well I can do that. I found, oh my god, this is not like school, I like this, and I can actually do it.”

As David progressed through his studies he decided to focus on Indigenous health. “Not only because that’s who I am but because I’ve seen its impact across my family. I mean, I’ve seen the bad side as well. I was taken away as a child and put into an orphanage. My father was in hospital and my mother had post-natal depression and the social workers took me away, they thought, ‘this Aboriginal woman is not coping’, but it took them three years to get me back, from three to six.”

David says encouraging and enabling young Indigenous Australians to likewise pursue a tertiary education is a whole of community task, however it starts with the individual.

“The only thing that stops them achieving what they want is themselves, that’s the only thing,” he says. “But it can be tough. And I think the other thing with lots of Indigenous students is, we have to take into account where they’re coming from. They might be the only kid in their family to go to university, so do families need more education about what that means? Do we need more scholarships? Particularly when you get into rural areas; what is the family’s socio-economic situation?

“They’re things as a university we need to look at but they’re things we also need to talk to communities and health services about. We can’t do it on our own, they have to come on board with us, and that’s going to be part of my role. It has to be a mutual pathway.” Watch this space.

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