Western NSW PHN Workforce Capacity Building Project
Case study for the CBPATSISP Manual of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention
Western NSW PHN covers an area of more than 400,000 square kilometres comprising four larger regional towns and areas classified as rural or remote. Service providers experience problems recruiting suitably skilled staff, especially outside of the regional centres. Fly-in-fly-out workers fill immediate shortages but do not form deeper connections with communities or solve long-term workforce issues.
Responding to this extreme workforce shortage, WNSWPHN initiated a Workforce Capacity Building project to provide scholarships and support to people who live in under-serviced communities to train as professionals.
Undertaken through the National Suicide Prevention Trial, the project recruited residents from each of six trial site Shires – Brewarrina, Bourke, Cobar, Lachlan, Walgett and Weddin – supporting them to complete a Certificate lV in Community Services. This broad qualification was chosen to maximise graduates’ employment prospects, while predetermined electives in Crisis, Bereavement Support, Alcohol and Other Drugs and Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities ensured they acquired core suicide prevention skills.
The first student intake was recruited in 2017, with selection based on commitment and strong community connections. The 16 successful candidates included Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal men and women from a wide age range, including many with lived experience of suicide or mental health issues and several who had not previously undertaken study beyond Year 10.
The program was led by the Western Plains Regional Development at Condoblin, under contract to the PHN, while the Cert lV education models were delivered through the non-profit training organisation Verto. Students were based with service providers in their local regions. In three of the six shires – Walgett, Brewarrina and Bourke – this was an ACCHO.
Funding covered the employment of a part-time project officer, a computer and internet connection for each participant to support their participation in fortnightly classes by video-link, and travel costs for them to attend face-to-face meetings where they also completed short courses including Aboriginal Mental Health First Aid and ASIST and SafeTalk suicide prevention training. The program provided academic and personal support to help students manage the pressures and ambiguities they face in undertaking study and embarking on a formal role as a worker within their own communities.
The investment in the local development of community support workers aligns with the conclusions of a modelling project undertaken by Sax Institute, also under the suicide prevention trial. The modelling found that for the Aboriginal population in the PHN catchment, assertive after-care, hospital staff training and Aboriginal community support programs could potentially avert 11% of suicide cases and 9% of attempted suicide cases over the next 20 years – much more than clinical interventions. The positive effect attributed to community programs typically delivered by the community services and peer workforces – to reduce isolation and strengthen resilience and connections to community and culture – was nearly double in Aboriginal communities than in the population as a whole.
The abbreviated commissioning cycle under the suicide prevention trial meant there was not time to co-design the program with each community as would usually be expected. However the project team gives a formal update to the PHN’s Aboriginal Advisory Council every six months and is also collaborating with the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly and its Community Working Parties to build understanding and support for the program in individual towns.
The collegiality of the Workforce Capacity Building program has been especially important for rural students, who may feel isolated while studying. Aboriginal students benefit from strategies that address potential barriers to learning, including cost and disadvantage in school education. Their communities also benefit from witnessing their members’ success in completing higher education as well as from the skills they develop. The program has been particularly successful in increasing the number of qualified local workers in more remote communities such as Brewarrina and Lightning Ridge.
Thirteen students, of whom seven were Aboriginal, graduated in September 2019, and nine of the graduates immediately found work in the community services sector. A second intake of 15 community members began studying in late 2019, of whom nine identify as Aboriginal, and the PHN is now considering how it can fund Workforce Capacity Building to become an ongoing program.