The Importance of Mental Health Awareness in Papua New Guinea

Mental health is so widely spoken about in Australia that it is something we almost take for granted. The words ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ are part of a daily dictionary of words heard either in the workspace, in conversation with friends or online. Such a lexicon is not so commonplace in Papua New Guinea.

In recognising this, FemiliPNG Australia coordinated a mental health first aid training program earlier this year with the Cairnmillar Institute to increase awareness of mental health issues with Femili PNG caseworkers. Survivors of violence have to negotiate the effects of trauma in deeply personal matters, but also navigate formal systems – medical or legal – for support and healing. Having to recount their experiences in different forms leads to a risk of further psychological harm if received with reproach, blame or disbelief.

The role of caseworkers is to provide support and assist survivors to achieve their desired outcomes. This could involve accompanying clients to hospital visits or helping them repatriate to their home provinces. This form of care work means that caseworkers are dealing with secondary trauma on a daily basis. This exposes caseworkers to a higher risk of primary trauma as they cope with their own struggles and that of their clients.

During the training sessions with Cairnmillar, caseworkers were taken through basic definitions of common mental-health issues, including identifying symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The program then focused on the support systems which can be offered to those suffering with mental health issues, highlighting that as with FSV and SARV response, it’s important to take a survivor centred approach.

In Papua New Guinea, geographical constraints as well cultural beliefs are key factors influencing access to effective mental health services. An application of Indigenous approaches to mental health issues remains widespread compared to western assessment and treatment approaches. Traditional healers are the main point of contact for many people with mental illnesses.

The caseworkers all unanimously agreed that there is a real lack of mental-health resources and support in PNG. A lot of mental-health support is at a higher, psychiatric level. The lack of mid-level or early intervention practices for people struggling with mental health means that a lot of these symptoms often go untreated until it is much too late. In PNG culture, depressive episodes and anxiety attacks are commonly viewed as sorcery-related ailments. As such, supernatural afflictions are seemingly beyond the human ability to cure.

The case workers were extremely grateful to have the opportunity to learn how to better support their clients and were motivated to also carry out these practices in their own lives. They reported that the trainers were highly engaging, implementing practical exercises to provide participants hands on experience with some of the concepts that were discussed. They left feeling confident in their ability to be quality mental-health care providers in a context where access to mental-health support has been limited.

This training was made possible through the Stongim Femili PNG Program which is funded by Newmont PNG. The objective of this program is to build the organisational capability and resilience of Femili PNG to continuously improve service delivery and respond to opportunities and challenges in the future.