COVID-19 Advice for the JCU Community - Last updated: 8 June 2022, 12pm (AEST)

Written By

Janine Lucas


College of Medicine and Dentistry

Publish Date

3 June 2022

Related Study Areas

Building confidence and competence to help

Medical student and headspace volunteer India Petherick-Cocking is on a mission to recruit JCU’s doctors of the future as mental health first-aiders.

India's Lynn Kratcha Bursary speech last year on rural suicide and better equipping rural general practitioners to tackle mental health issues inspired an offer from JCU GP Training to sponsor extracurricular Mental Health First Aid courses for medical students.

The first group of mental health first-aiders did a weekend-long course in March, and it’s hoped more will follow later in the year. Mental Health First Aid is a set of simple and practical skills for helping a family member, friend, co-worker or other person who is experiencing mental health problems.

India saw the unmet demand for rural mental health services on her Lynn Kratcha Bursary placement in Weipa.  “When I wrote my speech, a lot of it came out of statistics, but now after completing my Lynn Kratcha placement, it's from personal experience. The psychiatrists were in Weipa for a few days and they had so many patients to see.

“They service the entire Cape region. It's amazing how many people they have to help but they don't live in the community so there's a lack of continuity of care. They rely so much on the social workers and others on the ground to try to provide a bigger picture of the patients.”

India says as well as equipping students to help peers and be aware of their own warning signs, Mental Health First Aid is an excellent skill for community and hospital placements.

“Conversations matter. It applies to everyday life, and it applies to your patients when you go out on placement as well,” she says.

young woman and older man sitting on bench and wearing colourful socks
three young people standing in front of Weipa Health Services entrance sign
Left: JCU medical student India Petherick-Cocking and Associate Professor Lawrie McArthur, head of JCU GP Training, Crazy Socks 4 Docs Day, which aims to break down the stigma around mental health for doctors. Right: India (centre) with Ayra Kassam and Reece Martis on their Lynn Kratcha Bursary placement in Weipa.

Looking after mental health

“The past few years, for many of us, have brought a series of blows from which we can’t seem to catch a break: pandemic, bushfires, floods, social isolation and, for young people particularly, concern about the state of our planet. This, on top of our everyday stressors has been a lot, and this is reflected in the state of our mental health and the increasingly high demand on mental health services.

The mental health crisis isn’t going anywhere any time soon, but that’s not to say there isn’t hope. We are in the midst of change where not only individually, but on a systemic level we are starting to prioritise our mental health as well as awareness and education. This was evident to me in the support I received from JCU GP Training, the Dean, my lecturers and, most importantly, my peers to hold group Mental Health First Aid training at the University.

Rural suicide prevention is something I am passionate about. Rural populations are a diverse and underserved population broadly in health care but even more so when it comes to mental health.

Prevalence of mental health conditions is similar between metropolitan and rural Australia, but the rural suicide rate is twice as high. This speaks volumes to the paucity of mental health services in rural areas, and to the stigma surrounding mental health that is still so common in society.

The state of mental health and suicidality is an even more distressing picture for First Nations peoples, with Aboriginal men having one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and the suicide rate among young people being three times higher than in non-Indigenous Australians.

large group of students in classroom in front of projection screen
pile of books
Left: Medical students do Mental Health First Aid Training. Right: Course handbooks for Mental Health First Aid Training, sponsored by JCU GP Training.

Mental health first aid training

This training will not only benefit our rural patients but has really highlighted the ways it can benefit medical students to support each other. How often in the last year alone have you seen someone in crisis and thought, “I don’t know how to help,” or “What if I say the wrong thing?” I’m not saying that you walk out of the two-day course a mental health clinician, but you develop confidence and competency in approaching these difficult conversations.

By running the training in a collaborative setting with close-knit groups of preclinical students, we created trusting and supportive environments that facilitated great conversations around mental health, that can translate outside of the classroom as well. People felt comfortable speaking up about these topics and acknowledging gaps in their understanding and the convergence of life experiences served as an opportunity to learn from one another. This degree and career have high rates of burnout, so having an awareness of how to approach and support peers struggling with their mental health is crucial. It’s also important to be able to recognise warning signs in ourselves and know what supports are available.

Speaking as a young person, seeking help is a daunting experience. Navigating the complicated mental health system is no easy task and I wouldn’t want to do it alone. I like to think that if a friend was struggling with their mental health, they could come to me for help. It is never too late to ask, and it is never too soon to start thinking about your own mental health. I encourage my peers, and have to constantly remind myself, to take time out of each day for self-care. We forget to check in and we make less time for the things that make us happy. That hour at the beach is nothing in the grand scheme of a 13-week semester.

My vision for the future with this Mental Health First Aid project is to see it integrated into the medical curriculum, rather than simply being offered as an extracurricular activity. The support and interest JCU GP Training and the College of Medicine and Dentistry have invested in the program has brought me such a sense of pride. I would like to extend a huge thanks to the Head of JCU GP Training, Associate Professor Lawrie McArthur, for supporting this initiative, and to Lee Town and Denise Svane for donating their time to teach us.”

James Cook University Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery students get a values-aligned education while improving the health of underserved communities. Find out how a Cape York Peninsula medical placement inspired Torres Strait Islander doctor Lisa Waia to pursue a career in ear, nose and throat surgery.

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