Issues Magazine

The Royal Flying Doctor Service: A Ripple Effect in Remote Mental Health

By Elissa Roberts

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (Queensland Section) has introduced an indigenous program with the aim of improving social and emotional well-being services for Cape York communities.

Like various other services, many mental health providers are infrequent visitors to Cape York communities and operate on a fly-in, fly-out basis, which means there are limited permanent services available. However, at the completion of the Royal Flying Doctor Service’s (RFDS) Drop the Rock program, RFDS-trained local mental health workers will permanently reside in numerous Cape York communities, providing a range of skills including community work, advocacy, family violence and suicide prevention.

Drop the Rock consists of 14 indigenous students who are completing a Certificate IV in Mental Health Work (non-clinical). The students are mentored by RFDS Cairns base staff, Tileah Drahm-Butler (program coordinator), Glenn Richards (program supervisor) and Sue Nicholls (administration support officer), as well as Trudi McCaul, a trainer from Leap into Life Training.

The name of the program, Drop the Rock, has a unique story. “During the first training block participants each provided one sentence to describe what the opportunity meant to them,” said Sue Nicholls. “Collectively the meanings have been described as to drop the rock in the pool of life and create a positive ripple effect that will have far-reaching implications for indigenous people into the future.”

Their sentences were compiled by Tileah Drahm-Butler to create a song titled Drop the Rock. The song is now performed for various community groups and elders as a way to introduce the program and team vision.

Upon completion of the program, students gain an accredited Certificate IV qualification and will be based in their local communities. Participants will provide support to their communities through basic counselling, referral, advocacy, group work and program delivery.

“This will help build capacity in the local community,” explains Tileah Drahm-Butler. “Community members will be able to deal with issues as they arise and will have the opportunity to talk to people with appropriate skills in helping about their problems who also understand their context and cultural setting.”

Participants are required to spend 4 days per block in a classroom environment and undertake assessments during each of the 15 blocks to display competencies in different areas to complete the course. In addition, participants are required to develop their own client list and work effectively within their own communities, working in collaboration with other providers including the RFDS.

Tileah describes the course as a “total program” because, in addition to the course work, the training includes learning opportunities through group work and the exploration of cultural issues, first aid, part-time employment and social activities that enhance group bonding and team spirit. Other learning outcomes that are not part of the course, such as budgeting, debating, stress management and relaxation, can be used personally and when working in the community.

The program is rewarding for not only Cape York and the students but also for the staff. “You can’t help but get tingles down your spine when you see the students standing tall and proud delivering their presentations,” Nichols says. “Every one of them has an individual and amazing story, some of which have overcome many personal issues to attend training.

“The focus of the Drop the Rock program in the next period of time, besides completing all 15 training blocks, is the development of strategies and community-specific programs focusing on suicide prevention,” Nicholls says. The program is scheduled to run for 2 years but the team has hopes for its continuation until 2014.

“This program is educating tomorrow’s community leaders,” Nichols explains. “The experiences the participants are gaining coupled with the studies they are undertaking will provide them with vital counselling and support skills to assist in their communities.”

Indigenous health is a key priority for the Federal and state governments. The RFDS is funded to provide a variety of health programs in Cape York. The following statistics from the ReconciliACTION website ( outline the realities for those people living in the indigenous communities where the RFDS works.

  • Life expectancy is 17 years less for indigenous than for non-indigenous people: 59.4 years for indigenous men versus 76.6 years for all Australian men and 64.8 years for indigenous women versus 82.0 years for all women.
  • Indigenous babies are twice as likely to be of low birthweight, which makes them much more vulnerable to illness.
  • There are significantly higher rates of chronic diseases, communicable diseases, disabilities and mental health problems among indigenous people.
  • Overcrowding in housing is a major problem. This is worst in remote communities where up to 17 people can share a three-bedroom house.
  • Indigenous people are much more likely to be victims of violence. For example, indigenous people make up around 15% of murder victims even though they only make up 2.3% of the population.
  • There are much higher levels of substance abuse, family violence and suicide in indigenous communities.
  • Indigenous young people are more than four times more likely to be sexually abused than non-indigenous young people.