The Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS) is one of the oldest Aboriginal health services in Victoria, providing vital physical and mental health support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Fitzroy, Preston and Epping.
Its ability to quickly adapt to changes and respond to new conditions are key strengths the organisation has honed over the last 49 years of operation. This response was amplified when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020. In particular, foresight to upgrade its IT systems prior to the pandemic contributed to the relative ease with which the whole organisation was able to mobilise and tap into virtual means of engagement and service delivery for its community.
VAHS also facilitated strong vaccination rates among community members and more broadly, making an early decision to offer vaccination to non-Aboriginal household members and extended family to mitigate infection transmission and protect vulnerable members of their community.
From March to August 2021 VAHS vaccinated one third of non-Aboriginal household members versus 37% of its regular Aboriginal community.
VAHS CEO Michael Graham says the organisation is proud of its work to keep the community safe.
“Our staff have put in a huge effort, and while they are all fatigued at this point of the pandemic, they are driven to continue because they know how important their work, and our organisation is, to keep our community COVID-free as best we can.”
When lockdown restrictions came into effect in Victoria, the VAHS mental health teams mobilised quickly, knowing that the close-knit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in the north and east of Melbourne would struggle without easy access to their usual health and support services and connection to mob.
The organisation introduced a free 24-hour counselling phone service to provide a safe space for community to seek information, talk about concerns and maintain connection to community. The Yarning Safe n Strong initiative proved so successful that in June 2020 the phone line was rolled out nationally in partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO).
“When you are ready, VAHS is ready”
Clear, easy to understand and frequent messaging was instrumental in the uptake of COVID-19 vaccination by the VAHS’s Aboriginal community. Strong emphasis was placed on providing current health advice to assist them in making an informed decision. VAHS utilised all its communication channels to advise, educate and support community.
The organisation also called on many well-known members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to share their vaccination stories and encouragement, which became a very effective strategy in eliminating vaccine hesitancy and improving uptake.
The VAHS COVID-19 vaccination clinics also provided enhanced access to community by extending their opening hours to evenings and weekends, with the Fitzroy clinic one of a few vaccination centres in the state offering walk-in appointments.
Michael says, “The strength of VAHS is its connection to community, built up over several years. Many of our staff have relationships with the community built on shared history and trust, and that really makes a difference to how we engage and the outcomes we see.”
Facilitating healing for staff
The VAHS Aboriginal Employee Assistance Program (EAP) began in July last year to support staff to explore their personal challenges resulting from the pandemic, facilitate healing and develop strategies to address identified issues in accordance with cultural safety and self-determination.
Staff were given the opportunity to yarn in a non-judgemental, confidential space and take away strategies to help address their needs. While the program started as a VAHS initiative, it has now grown to include eight organisations utilising the program, from both mainstream and Aboriginal health.
Feedback received speaks of the much needed service acknowledging culturally sensitive issues, recognising trauma and providing a culturally safe space for employees to discuss their concerns.
One participant said, “It’s great to know you are there and I so appreciate having someone to talk to who is both culturally sensitive and familiar with our issues. Your insight and ability to communicate with me in an open and respectful way is just so valuable for us mob.”
“I have been accessing EAP services for four weeks now. I have tried numerous other services in the public and private sectors but have never felt so comfortable and respected as I do through this program. I encourage anyone wanting a culturally safe, confidential, warm and non-judgemental support to reach out to the EAP. It has helped me vastly in both my work and private life.”
Established in 1972 to address the specific health needs of Victorian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, VAHS provides a comprehensive range of services, including allied health, healthy lifestyles programs, smoking cessation, men’s health, social and emotional wellbeing, women and children's services, in-home support, parenting resources, family counselling services, financial wellbeing, medical services, home visits, referrals, transport, visiting medical specialists and dental services.
VAHS is committed to supporting the well-being of the community through contributions to community events and activities and supporting research into ongoing needs of the community.
For more information go to https://www.vahs.org.au/