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Where Eco-Social Work and Indigenous World Views Intersect

Eco-social work is an area of practice that is still trying to find its identity. I have only very recently ‘come out’ as an eco‑social worker and recognise there are many different approaches to incorporating eco‑therapies into practice.

My eco-social work practice has been largely influenced by my Indigenous mentors and co-workers in the Northern Territory. Spending time on country with Tiwi Elders gave me insight into their culture, spiritual connection to the land and harmonious lifestyles. For those experiencing intergenerational trauma, mental health, drug and alcohol and domestic violence issues, the women often told me “going bush is the best medicine for our people”. Essentially what the Elders were telling me is that land and connection to country is critical for social and emotional wellbeing, and must be part of a therapeutic plan for recovery. This is consistent with a 2009 Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATIS) paper, which says:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is viewed in a holistic context, that encompasses mental health and physical, cultural and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing. Crucially, it must be understood that when the harmony of these interrelations is disrupted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ill health will persist.

Lucy with Tiwi Elders, Alberta and Elaine

Part of my therapeutic work involved taking families out on camping trips away from the stresses of their community. The strong women always took a lead in traditional healing ceremonies for their children and families on these camps.

Eco-social work practice requires us to expand our thinking beyond the ‘person-in-environment’ perspective to consider the earth as an ecological whole in which humans have always belonged. Eco-psychologists might argue that people and the planet are so inextricably linked that when one becomes unwell so does the other, likewise when one is healthy so is the other. According to the biophilia hypothesis, people have an innate affiliation with nature and if we separate from nature we will suffer psychologically.

This need for nature goes beyond exploiting natural resources for human gain, but is vital for human emotional, spiritual, aesthetic and cognitive growth and development. It could be that our evolution away from forests into the busy, stressful conditions of modern civilisation is contributing to the rapidly rising rates of mental health issues we are seeing globally. Richard Louv, who uses the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe the impact of our separation, says children are spending so much less time outdoors than previous generations, that it is having a detrimental impact on their development. Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, we must remember, we are nature.

To assist in the process of getting people to reconnect with nature for health and wellbeing, I did training in an eco-therapy called Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT). NFT is inspired by the traditional Japanese practice of shinrin yoku (forest bathing). The objective of a nature therapy walk is to give participants an opportunity to take a break from the stresses of daily life, to slow down and appreciate things that can only be noticed when moving slowly.

The key is not to cover a lot of miles, but to walk through nature with intention and just ‘be’. This mindful approach to nature connection can be likened to the Indigenous contemplative practice of Dadirri, traditionally practised while sitting on country. Miriam Rose Ungunmerr says ‘Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us’.

Nature and Forest Therapy Walk, Nambucca Heads, NSW

On a guided group Nature Therapy walk, particular attention is paid to the practice of reciprocity. In supporting the development of human-nature relationships we foster the role of humans as givers, as well as receivers. I firmly believe that if we are more closely connected to Mother Nature, we are more likely to want to care for and protect her. People who engage regularly in forest bathing practices tend to spontaneously want to give back to nature or introduce lifestyle changes to tread more lightly on the earth. This is consistent with the Indigenous worldview that recognises the interconnectedness of all things.

In a counselling context, eco-social work can be as simple as conducting sessions outdoors or doing a ‘walk and talk’ session in nature. The relaxation effects of being in nature are immediate for our clients, regardless of what happens in the therapeutic conversation. If it is not possible to meet outside, nature can be brought indoors to enhance the healing effects. Introducing pot plants, nature landscape artwork and natural forest scents to your office all have health and wellbeing benefits.

Eco-therapists are implementing nature-based enquiries into their assessment processes using instruments such as the Sensory Awareness Inventory. Investigations into the sensory activities that give people pleasure often feature nature-based themes and provide insight into ways clients can move towards their therapeutic goals. Interventions such as sensate focusing allow clients to draw on the full range of sensory experiences to help them achieve a life of comfort, safety and joy. Using nature as a teaching or learning tool, nature-based assignments can be client or therapist-directed to help them draw on available resources and move towards change.

I believe eco-therapies will be the evidence-based focused psychological strategies of the future, as we begin to understand the interconnectedness between people and a planet under stress. Even putting aside for a moment what Indigenous people have demonstrated through their relationship with the land for thousands of years, there is evidence showing the benefits of nature and green space, to mental, physical, emotional, cultural, and spiritual health.

In bringing eco-therapy into my social work practice, I aspire to connect people back to their true nature, promote wellness and recovery from physical and mental ill health, and bring healing to those who have experienced trauma. By strengthening the human-nature connection, I am also indebted to the traditional, ancient wisdom of Indigenous cultures about the healing power of nature and our obligations to care for our planet.

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Giving Back to Nature

Giving Back to Nature

There are lots of ways humans communicate their distress and need for help without actually using words, which can be too hard.  You might notice their mood changes and they retreat into their bedroom, they turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their feelings, start to harm or say they’re going to kill themselves.  The person is not a problem to be fixed here.  It’s a sign that there is something drastically wrong with their environment that does not allow them to thrive.   Rather than attention-seeking behaviours, I see these as cries for help to fix their environment!   In short, eradicating things like homelessness, homophobia, racism, discrimination, poverty, injustice, inequality and environmental degradation would go a long way to fixing people’s mental health issues.

Consider that the Earth also finds it difficult to speak up.  She has been trying to seek our attention for many decades now to indicate her distress.  She has been giving us warning signs that are growing much more alarming.   You know them.  The melting polar caps, the loss of biodiversity due to deforestation, escalating animal extinction rates, more frequent natural disasters and arguably now a pandemic.  The Planet is not attention-seeking here!  She is crying out for help.  We need to fix her environment, those precious spaces and places we share with her.  By doing so, our health and mental health will also benefit.

The reality of climate changes’ devastating effects was most prominent for me in the Black Summer fires of 2019-20.  Bushfires were bearing down on us in our makeshift home at the time on the outskirts of Bowraville.  The impact was devastating and people hardly had time to recover before the pandemic hit.  Some are still living without proper housing. 

After this close call, I felt a real urge to take action and I’ve been doing as much as I can to live more lightly on the earth like establishing a worm farm, buying more bulk organic goods and less plastic, and ensuring I recycled or reused everything I possibly could!  In my most despairing of moments I often feel powerless, thinking what difference can one person really make.  In my most hopeful moments, I can see that larger movements of people really can do good, the work of Greta Thunberg being an obvious example.  So I’ve decided that this year, it’s time for more broader action.

It’s time to plant trees.  Lots of them.  Using the tools that Nature has provided us already, this is one way we can take action now to draw down excess carbon from the atmosphere.  My commitment this year is to donate $1 from each counselling session to ReForest Now.

ReForest Now volunteers planting in the Upper Mongogorie, NSW.
Photo credit – Reforest Now

“ReForest Now works to restore what was once Australia’s largest expanse of subtropical rainforest, home to an incredible array of species that grew from the rich volcanic soils of Wollumbin. The Big Scrub once covered 75,000 hectares of Northern NSW (an area larger than Singapore!)  By 1900, more than 99% of this unique ecosystem had been cleared. The remaining forest occurs in small, scattered patches called “remnants”. These remnants contain 122 endangered/critically endangered species, with many more threatened.” You can read more about their inspiring work here.  And if you feel inspired to support them in any way, whether through donations or getting out there and putting plant into soil, I encourage you to do so.

We are all part of the Climate Change problem.  Think about what part you can play in being part of the solution.  We have taken so much.  It’s time to give back to nature.

Reforest Now volunteers maintain plantations. Photo credit – Reforest Now.
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Anxiety: Learning when it’s good to listen to it (and when it’s just being plain irrational)!

I know what it’s like to have an attack of Anxiety, although I didn’t know what it was at the time.  It was the kind of Anxiety that came with a sense of dread, that I was going to have a heart attack.  The thoughts of Anxiety were relentless as the odd pain in my chest wouldn’t budge, no matter how much Panadol, laying down to rest or comfort hubby provided.  My mind had been hijacked by Anxiety convincing me I might not live long enough to go on the adventure we had planned the following day.  I also remember thinking I don’t want to have a heart attack on White Island as medical help will be limited and slow.  We were on holidays in New Zealand having a wonderful, relaxing time.  But I didn’t want to worry my hubby so I walked myself to the hospital underplaying how concerned I was.  I knew the visit was going to cost a lot of money (being overseas) but I couldn’t ease my mind as long as the pain continued. 

I had a fair wait at the hospital before they ran all the blood tests you would expect as well as ECG monitoring.  I was discharged with the news that my heart was good, but just to be on the safe side they recommended follow up with a cardiologist for a stress test, back in Australia. 

White Island, November 2019

The next day my hubby and I were walking on a live volcano.  A few weeks before we arrived in New Zealand, White Island (known by its Maori name of Whakaari) was put on a Volcanic Alert Level 2 rating, indicating “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest”.  I learned this is the last level before eruption.  I remember feeling a little nervous hearing this, but no-one else seemed concerned, least of all the tour company taking us out there.  Before boarding the boat, I happily signed the waiver, but in the back of my mind conflicting voices were toying with each other; ‘Is this really safe?” and “Of course it is, otherwise we wouldn’t be going.”  The mood on the boat was jovial.  I was able to discount and push aside the lingering thoughts of “This could blow any moment!”.  A few hours later, after passing the steaming mouth of the volcano on foot, I was quietly relieved to be heading back to the waters edge, for the ride back.

Just over two weeks later White Island erupted, killing 22 people and injuring 25 others.

A few months later, I learned I had a very healthy heart and it must have been Anxiety causing my symptoms.  I got on with my life and didn’t think much of it again until recently as the 2 year anniversary of the tragedy looms.  As I’ve been learning more and more about the art of listening to the body, I’ve been wondering if the symptoms I’d experienced were actually my body’s warning system that something was imminent.  I like to think that I am in tune with my gut and it has guided me towards good fortune many a time, but sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between gut feelings and an overactive mind.  I’ve been sitting on the tarmac on a few flights and have had the thought ‘What if this plane goes down today?’  The gut was clearly not reacting in those moments.  I’ve managed to push these thoughts aside and lived.  But I have heard stories of people who’ve chosen not to board an aeroplane because ‘something’ told them not to, and they avoided a horror crash.  Perhaps they were listening to their body?

Was my heart (and my gut) trying to tell me something the day before my trip to White Island?

Looking back I wonder if my body was picking up on the heat that was bubbling away in the Earth’s core, getting ready to break the surface?  Was my body sensing Mother Nature’s unsettled energy?  Was this my body’s way of warning me not to get on that boat?  I wonder how those people who have avoided plane crashes by refusing to board, distinguished between the irrational thoughts of Anxiety and the premonition warning system that seems to be built into our bodies?  This must be the same system that my ancestors listened to when they were being hunted down by a predator.  For someone who experiences Anxiety regularly talking them out of doing things, I imagine this would be much more difficult terrain to negotiate.

I don’t have any answers.  I only feel blessed to be here telling this story.  But I am left wondering, what it would take to stop me from doing something I’d planned, if I got these symptoms again?  I’d like to think I might take more notice of my body next time.

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A Grief Encounter with Nature

As much as it hurts to write this because my sadness is raw and alive and being lived in this very moment, I want everyone to know that when you are in the midst of grief, nature has your back.

Back in March my mother had a fall and broke her hip.  Upon admission to hospital it was discovered she had sepsis, life threatening blood poisoning.  This kills a lot of people!  I hopped on a plane and flew ‘home’ to see her; it was touch and go for a while.  Over the next two weeks, the surgery was on, then off, then on again, then mum wasn’t well enough to operate on.  At one stage she was going to have to learn to live with a broken hip, because her heart might not survive an operation.

Meanwhile a few days after mum’s accident, my dad fell and was discovered passed out many hours later in the hot sun.  He suffered first degree burns to his legs and face from lying on a metal ramp.  Severely dehydrated, he was also lucky to be alive.

Was this really happening?  Two parents in hospital.  It was as if time had slowed down so much that I had trouble breathing.  I needed space.  I needed air.  I needed time to process this.

I am grateful I had the opportunity to just walk and ride and run outside on my brothers farm (I don’t usually run because my knees aren’t up to it, but I did it anyway because I knew it wouldn’t hurt any more than my heart).  I climbed the old gum tree I played in as a child, reminiscing about fun imaginary times and appreciating opportunities laid out for my future there.  As I gazed towards the setting sun over long, dry grass blowing in the wind, my tears fell on the brown, cracked earth, momentarily breaking the drought.  I lay on the grass, staring at aging eucalypts in the paddock, which had lost hope and turned an unsightly brown.  They were doing it tough too.

My favourite childhood memories are growing in this gum tree.

Eventually another surgery opportunity presented itself to my mum in Melbourne.  And dad agreed to skin grafts.  Can you believe they both travelled to the big city on the same day?  Weird.  Coincidence.

Mum didn’t quite make the painful three hour journey in the back of the ambulance, having to stop momentarily at another hospital to administer more pain medication and stabilise her.  After numerous set backs including infections and low blood pressure, she finally had her operation two weeks after the fall.  I had made peace with the fact that she might not survive it.  It was a nervous moment.  I was beside dad’s bed when his blood pressure dropped so low that his heart monitor alarm went off.   My own heart skipped a beat; life on a knife edge.

A lot of time was spent bedside.  Or travelling to hospital.  Or negotiating the public transport between two hospitals in a city that doesn’t know how to go slow.  I sought nature again, and space, and air.  All I saw were tall buildings of concrete crowding out the warm sun and other depressed-looking city folk stuck on the mouse’s wheel.  The only trees I saw were in a beautiful park, from nine stories up out a hospital window.  I was desperate to get there to feel the earth under my feet, to run amongst the autumn leaves, to breathe freely, but I never did.  The weather had turned so bitterly cold, dreary and wetter than my tears.

The trees I desperately wished to visit, out of mum’s hospital window.

I was angry too.  Hospitals were not conducive to healing or recovery.  People got sicker here not better (it happened to my mum).   I couldn’t stop thinking about the research that shows patients who have access to nature outside their window recover more quickly from surgery and illness.  Some of the beds I’ve seen, don’t even have natural light!

Eventually I had to fly home.  I contracted a chest cold and I didn’t want to infect anybody.

Seven weeks later and my parents are still in hospital.  There have been infections and unexplainable turns.  Multiple tests, scans, xrays.  MRI’s and ECG’s.  Staphylococcus contraction from surgery.  Wounds that won’t stop leaking.  Patience running thin.  Surgery to re-do unsuccessful grafts.  Going off food.   Back on food.  Ups.  Downs.

Wide open space allow me to run and breathe and hide and chase shadows with my son.

But the tipping point came this week, when I learned that the surgeons had also removed a lump from my dad’s ear which turned out to be Melanoma, an aggressive form of cancer.

There is nothing worse than watching those you love in unbearable pain.  Now there would be more to come.  I never dreamed that this would be dad’s way of exiting the world.  And mum is still not out of the woods yet (pardon the pun).

Upon hearing this latest news, I took off on my regular walk up the country road where I live.  I didn’t get far before my eyes became too clouded to see where I was going.  I plonked myself down on the roadside in the bushes, overlooking the valley.  I listened to the breeze as it bent young eucalypts.  I watched the ants moving about their daily business.  I gazed at fluffy white clouds moving across the brilliant blue sky.  And then I heard something, a gentle pounding, of little feet.  I didn’t move.  Then right on cue I noticed a wallaby meandering towards my direction.  It stopped behind a tree.  Then slowly it moved towards the fence five metres in front of me, crouching down to move through the wire, and pop up on the other side.  I told myself if I sat still, perhaps it would hop right on past me, allowing me to appreciate this close up encounter.   The wallaby started up the slight embankment towards me.  Before I had struck eye contact, he had caught a glimpse of me and with tremendous leg strength, had dramatically propelled himself into reverse, the ground reverberating, bouncing off the rise and back up the fence line.  I didn’t even have time to react.  Even my breath had stopped dead still.

I watched him as he sat at a safe distance plucking up the courage to look back at the strange phenomenon he had just encountered.  It must have been a shocking discovery to find me sitting there.  I couldn’t help but feel sad that he wasn’t brave enough to continue on past me, as if I was invisible.  Or just a part of nature too.  Part of his web of life.

Yes, I know how you feel young wallaby.  You’re shocked.  You’re rattled.  The natural rhythm of life has been upset momentarily.

But I notice something else.  You bounced back.  Sure, it was in another unexpected direction.   But you also had the courage to look back and ponder what it was that knocked you off your feet.  To take stock before you carry on.   To appreciate this moment of being alive in nature.

You and I have a lot in common.

POSTNOTE:   My dear mum passed away on June 9, 2018.  Forever remembered.

Me and some of my fellow Guides at our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

“Why I love Trees”:  My Journey of Nature Connection

Today is ‘International Day of Forests’.  It is also the last day of my six month practicum of training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  Very soon I will be a Certified Guide.  In the last week I’ve been reflecting on this journey and how this all come about.

I think it all starts back in my childhood when I spent most hours outside on the farm in country Victoria.  I have fond memories of the vege garden, looking after animals, bike riding on country roads and driving the tractor for dad.  I didn’t spend much time inside, preferring to generally wander the paddocks amusing myself, kicking field mushrooms or throwing cow pats like discuses. I used to spend hours lying on a big branch in an old gum tree, making up stories in my head about the creatures that lived there.   Nature was my playground.

I’ve always loved playing in trees.

As you do, I left home at 21 thinking there was something better.  I got married young, had a family, bought my first house, travelled overseas and moved to a big city to get a degree and pursue a career.  It was about accumulating lots of stuff.  But Brisbane got crowded and I yearned to get back to a quieter life, so went back to Darwin 11 years ago with my beautiful family in tow.

I was drawn into bushwalking, taking up invitations to hike with friends in Kakadu.  I heard about permaculture and joined a community garden.  I also had the privilege of being out on country with Aboriginal Elders on the Tiwi Islands and an outstation in NE Arnhemland, where I felt, smelt, sensed and heard stories about their human-nature spiritual connection.

Hiking the Jatbula Trail near Katherine in 2017.

I can now appreciate how lucky I was to have been so close to nature as a child, as I find myself coming back around to many of the practices that kept me grounded and healthy.

Over the years while practising social work on the Tiwi Islands, I came to learn about narrative therapy and a groupwork methodology called the Tree of Life.  After sharing these ideas with some of the Tiwi Elders, I came to realise the power of the tree metaphor in helping Aboriginal people tell their problem stories in ways that were non-shaming and safe, as well as strong stories about healing from the ‘storms’ of their lives, working together like a forest.  I discovered that yarning about problems using nature metaphors helps to integrate trauma experiences without retraumatising people.  We used these ways of yarning in counselling, groupwork and family healing bush camps.  I also write a children’s therapeutic book called ‘The Life of Tree’ to help Aboriginal kids open up about their experience of violence in families.

Trees have become important metaphors in my work too.

In 2013, I caught an early diagnosis of thyroid disease and was told I would eventually have to go on medication.  Not accepting this fate, I turned to natural medicine for answers – taking supplements to make up for our mineral-depleted soils, cutting out foods that were contributing to my body’s autoimmune response, quitting my job to de-stress, joining the ‘slow living’ movement, and taking up meditation (although I struggled to make this a daily practice).  By 2016 I had no evidence that Hashimotos disease had ever been part of my life.  Once again, nature had shown me the way.

In the background, I had a growing sense of unease, helplessness and despair at the state of the planet.  I mulled about the future my children would have to deal with and noticed the global trends in increased anxiety, depression and suicide in young people coping with the pressure of modern, domesticated life.  I read about ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a result of children’s technology use and the detrimental affect excessive screen time was having on their development.   Something has to change and quickly.  The earth does not have the luxury of time if we are to repair the damage we’ve done, and at what cost to our own physical and mental health?

Fast forward to April 2017 when I find myself in the wild West of Tasmania.  My girlfriend had to pull out of our planned trip at the last minute because of her mum’s terminal illness.  I’d never travelled on my own before, and I was constantly thinking about my safety out in the wilderness walking alone.  But by the end of my holiday, I had come to enjoy my own company so much, that it took me a while to be around people again.  I was also in awe of the beautiful old growth forests that boasted trees that were more than four hundred years old.  Nature has always been important to my own growth, health and wellbeing.  But this experience took me to a level of nature connection and a sense of freedom, that I’d never experienced before.  I wanted more.  It was shortly after this that I heard about Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) and decided to train as a Guide in September 2017.

Learning how to be on my own in nature in Tasmania’s wild West.

I experienced an amazing week-long intensive immersed in the Yarra Ranges engaging in mindful walks in nature every day.  NFT is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.  While learning the skills of helping others slow down using intentional invitations to connect with nature and ignite the senses, I learnt how to slow myself down even more.  Believe me, it is intensive.  Practising mindfulness every day takes discipline and practice when you are the kind of person that always has multiple projects on the go and a mind that never rests.  After a week, I just wanted to run or go for a long hike.  No more slow!  But seriously.  This is the practice that is going to sustain my health and wellbeing long into the future.  And there are a lot of scientific studies coming out now to prove it.  For me, it’s about finding the balance between living and working in the ‘real world’ and engaging with the ‘natural world’.  As Richard Louv says “The more connected to technology we become, the more nature we need to achieve a natural balance.”

Me and my fellow Guides during our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

Over the past six months I’ve learnt a lot about myself – about my ‘edges’ and how to dissolve irrational fears; about how to let go of agendas and trust nature will lead the way; what it means to live out your life according to your values and beliefs even when the chips are down; what it feels like to be part of a community of like-minded folk who also care about the planet and each other; the relief of discovering the beauty in humanity; and finding hope again after experiencing the resilience of nature.  I have a long way to go but I’m feeling much more connected to the more-than-human world than ever before.   On one of my recent Nature and Forest Therapy walks someone said ‘I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation for years, but I’ve never experienced anything like this before.’  I know right?  I’ve been there.  And now as an NFT Guide, I get to witness the personal profound insights others gain on my three hour slow wanders in nature.  I’m also buoyed by the possibility of people being inspired to take action against climate change and in their personal daily habits, because of their renewed sense of connection and care for the planet.  NFT has the power to do this too!

Guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk in Nambucca State Forest.

As I come to the end of my practicum I feel incredibly grateful for the support of my mentors, friends and family, the resources that allow me to follow my heart and dreams, and the start I had in life back on the farm that sowed the seeds of nature connection.

Happy ‘International Day of Forests’ to you.  Do your body, mind and spirit a favour.  Get outside, play, explore, skip, make art using nature’s treasures, gaze at water, climb a tree.  Don’t think about it too much.  Follow your instincts.  And when the forest speaks to you….listen.

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Love yourself First:  A Valentine’s Day Message

I recently had the opportunity to go out on country with a respected Gumbaynggirr man living and working in the Bellinger Valley.  I’ve come to know him in a short time as a storyteller, photographer, culture man and healer.

Image by Bernard K Edwards, Never Never Creek in the Promised Land

Early in a conversation with him, I commented that one must learn to love themselves first, before they can love others.  Later that day, we are sitting on a fallen tree across the Never Never River in the beautiful Promised Land, looking out over refreshing, crystal clear water gently flowing over the river rocks.  I am reflecting on my happy life and questioning why I should be so lucky to have things always fall my way, while other people are not so lucky.  I’ve never had anything traumatic occur that has changed the course of my life, in fact, quite the opposite – I’ve been able to achieve all the goals I have been able to set myself, without any barriers or hiccups.  Putting aside the fact that my white skin automatically gives me privileges over other cultural groups, I attributed my “success” in life to my parents that had provided a safe, loving, healthy home, surrounded by nature and fresh air on Victoria’s farming country, protected from the worries of the world.  My companion politely pulls me up “do you not think, that YOU have had something to do with it?” and points out the contradiction with my earlier statement – YOU must love yourself before you can love others.  He goes on to share that once we have left our mother’s arms, we are out on our own.  As adults, we are responsible for our own decisions.  The choices we make in life are ours alone and cannot be attributed to our parents.

I think about this in silence as the water trickles below my feet and a tiny blue bird visits a nearby rock.  It would not have been possible to learn how to love myself without the love of my parents to show me that I am worth loving.  But I get his point.  There comes a point as adults when we have to take responsibility for our own choices in life.  This is what it means to love and respect yourself.  To know that YOU are truly worthy of setting the course of your life.  And no one else can do that for you.

I peer into the reflection of the water now cooling my feet.  Water knows how to flow.  It learnt this from mother earth since the beginning of time.  The fallen tree does not prevent the water from doing what it wants to do.  It finds a way to flow through, around, up and over.  And new life springs forth from the rotting tree.

As you reflect on the love that others have provided you this Valentine’s Day, consider what nature can teach you about loving yourself?  What choices will you take today, on the path towards love?  Make a decision today, knowing that the universe has your back!

Image by Bernard K Edwards

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…metaphorically speaking: Looking back, moving forward and just being present!

A new year is a good opportunity to reflect on the time that has come to pass, as well as set intentions for the future.  But there is something to be said about just appreciating the present moment too.

I find myself in a new garden of Eden, set in the Nambucca Valley on the upper mid north coast of New South Wales.   The sound of laughing kookaburras echo and the scent of a flowering lemon myrtle wafts over the gentle trickle of Nambucca Creek, winding its way through my backyard.  Sweaty tropical wet season days have been replaced with warm, summer days and gentle cooling breezes.  I feel my body slowly relaxing into this fresh environment, as culture shock gently subsides and the known but unfamiliar becomes engrained in daily life.
Yes, I have physically relocated.   And things are moving for ….metaphorically speaking.

To reflect on the years that have come to pass, I’m reminded of the immense privilege of working in the Northern Territory, the relationships I’ve built that will stand the test of time, a mind-full re-connection to the earth and respect for the oldest culture in the world.   My suitcase is full of rich stories, heart-filled memories, learnings and gratitude.  2017 was the year of completion and a sense of accomplishment; seeing out the initial trial of the Healing Our Children project on the Tiwi Islands, Palmerston and Katherine; launching my ‘Talk the Walk’ podcast; and of course, self-publishing my first children’s therapeutic picture book was a thrilling highlight.

As for new intentions (as I don’t do resolutions) well, there is some exciting opportunities on the horizon.  In March I will graduate with a Certificate in Nature and Forest Therapy.  I am not sure how the practice of forest bathing will look in the Nambucca Valley yet, but I am buoyed by the hope of working alongside First Nations people in exploring possibilities for nature-connected eco-tourism.  Nature therapy will also offer an alternative path to health and wellbeing, recovery from painful loss and hope for those who struggle in daily life to find meaning in this stressful world.

As I write, our family is seeking to find a permanent place to set up home in the hills, nestled amongst protected state forest and freshwater springs.  We long to grow our own food, foster regenerative land-care practices, learn to live more simply, and deepen our own spiritual connection with this place.  We yearn to share our vision with others, in the short term offering a two-way, shared learning space for co-creating and workshopping, and in the longer term a healing sanctuary and affordable retreat accommodation in a bush location.  I have no idea what this actually looks like; we trust that our vision for the regeneration of self and planet will grow organically, working with rather than against nature’s patterns and rhythms.

And so it is with a renewed sense of hope for humanity and the planet, that I embark on 2018.  While that might seem like a lot of change in the wind, for my subscribers to the blog and podcast most things will stay the same.  You will still be able to access my learnings on the journey in Indigenous social work practice as well as weekly podcast episodes of others’ experiences in social work with First Nation Australians.  As we move forward, you may find I do more blogging about the integration of ecopsychology, ecotherapies and Indigenous ways of knowing and healing ourselves and the planet.

My hope for this space in 2018 is to ramp up the conversation, amplify the connections between us, and share the great work that is happening around Australia.  If you’re engaging in Indigenous social work practice (or even just attempting to ‘walk the talk’), you have a story that others need to hear.   Please join in.  Send me an email and introduce yourself, comment on the Facebook Page,  follow us on Instagram, volunteer to be a guest blogger or nominate someone for a podcast interview.

In the midst of the hustle and bustle of packing up and moving, my podcast recording equipment is now sitting in a storage warehouse in Brisbane.  A small oversight on my part which I hope won’t affect broadcasting too much in the coming months.  I have three episodes waiting in the wings and will bring these to you each Wednesday starting next week.

In signing off, I’d like to acknowledge the hurt and sadness that exists on this day around Australia amongst our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.  While many see January 26 as a day to celebrate, the rest of us mourn.  I support #changethedate to recognise this painful history and to choose a more suitable date to celebrate what it means to be Australian.

May you be calm and keep on walking.

Lucy

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Burnout and Vicarous Trauma:  An employee defect or a yearning for collective action for social justice?

If you work in the area of trauma counselling, chances are you have an organisation or colleagues keeping a watchful eye out for the first signs and symptoms of burnout or vicarious trauma.

In my workplace we have to complete two tests every year – the Compassion Fatigue Self Test for Practioners and the Trauma and Attachment Beliefs Scale.  We also have regular training so that employees can identify the symptoms in each other.

While it might be considered admirable for our organisations to have a Vicarious Trauma Policy and working proactively to promote the health and wellbeing of its employees, what is it that is really happening here?  And what effect is this having?

If someone returns high results to vicarious trauma testing, the onus is on the individual to address it.  They are encouraged to revisit their self care plan or self refer to the Employee Assistance Program.  This kind of response pathologises the problem and locates it within the individual, that the counsellor is somehow defective or not strong enough.   It follows then that the client is to blame for somehow causing an injury by sharing their story with us.   Vikki Reynolds says using self care as an antidote for burnout “does nothing about the social determinants of health for people….  The problem is not in our heads or our hearts, but in the social world where clients and workers struggle with structures of injustice.”  Vikki argues that assuming a position where clients are seen to be hurting us is not an act of accountability at all.

In Darwin where I practice, we are surrounded by some of the worst cases of injustice in Australia such as the mistreatment of youth in detention, the highest rates of removal of Aboriginal children from their families and concerning numbers of child abuse within the foster care system.  Not far from us, refugees on Manus Island continue to suffer.

Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to hear the sad and heartbreaking stories of abuse and violence and the impact this has had on our clients.  And yes, I see and hear the impacts of intergenerational trauma outside my house; it’s difficult to escape it sometimes.  However, I return a normal vicarious trauma result.  I also hear inspiring stories of skills, knowledge and strengths of survival; stories of people speaking out to the Royal Commission so that the same thing doesn’t happen to other people; stories of people taking action to reduce the isolation caused by their poverty and homelessness.  I admire the steps of resistance my clients make against systems of injustice.  Indeed, clients do not hurt us, but instead inspire us, teach us and critique us says Reynolds.

The biggest critique our clients could legitimately make is why we, as workers, are not ‘fostering collective sustainability’*, coming together in solidarity to challenge the institutions and systems which marginalise and victimise our clients.

Indeed the collective silence of social workers in Australia is more likely to lead to my potential burnout, due to my frustration with the profession.  Why are social workers not out on the streets marching together to get Manus Island refugees to Australia?  Why are we silent in our support of our Indigenous comrades in the fight for Recognition?  Why are we standing back and allowing removal of Aboriginal children from families to go up and up?  Isn’t that why we entered this profession in the first place, to make a real difference to the social structures of injustice?  I was once accused of getting too close to a community because I cared too much, and was threatened to be removed by my employer.  However I was proud of my role as an advocate for social justice for the community and its people.

Social justice activism is a protective factor against vicarious trauma.  It’s not our clients that are hurting us.  It is our silence and inaction.

Perhaps the care we can show our colleagues is not to watch out for signs or symptoms of vicarious trauma in the workplace, but to gather in solidarity around shared ethics of social justice and collective accountability.  Let’s get out on the streets and do what we signed up for.

*‘Fostering collective sustainability’ is one of the guiding intentions advocated by Vikki Reynold in Justice Doing in Community Work and Therapy.
Christine with 'The Life of Tree'

Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice – Part II

Bloopers captured in time on our crowdfunding campaign video

This blog goes out on the cusp of the release of my first children’s therapeutic picture book.  Nerves aside, it’s been an exciting but hectic week as Christine and I prepare for media interviews.  We’ve also been busy creating a crowdfunding campaign to get the community on board with our hopes for the book.  We are new to all this stuff, so of course there have been many laughs along the way (hence the blooper snapshot captured here while filming our campaign video).  If you really want to know what all the fuss is about, then maybe this Q&A might provide some answers.

What is the book about?

There are two characters in the book, a little boy called Jack and his friend Tree, who lives with his family (or other trees) in the bush.   I think the blurb on the back cover is a good summary of what happens in this story.

“Tree is living a peaceful life in the bush until a wild storm comes along and damages his environment.  His friend, Jack is worried that Tree won’t recover and be able to play with him again.  When Jack also lives through a wild storm in his home, he comes to realise just how strong they both really are.  Jack has strong cultural roots, just like Tree that brings hope and healing to his whole family.”

This story is really exploring the ‘storms of life’ that children go through and how this impacts on them.  It’s also a story of healing which comes through connection, culture and the support of family and community.

How did this story come to me?

The story was just slowing coming together in the back of my mind, mulling away there for a long time.  Then one day, I think I was in a day dream state and the idea just popped into my head.  I then went away and wrote it fairly quickly.  Often ideas come to me in my dreams day or night.

Book Cover

What are the aims of the book?  What are my intentions in writing it?

I think the book reflects what I am trying to do in my counselling work with children.  First, it’s about helping them find their voice and give words to the ‘problem story’ of their lives.  It’s also about making visible the ‘strong story’ of their lives – what is it that is keeping them going, stay safe and be happy.

I am hoping that the adults in children’s lives will use this book to give voice to the strong story of children’s lives and perhaps even document this.   This could include the skills, abilities, beliefs, values and knowledge the child has in coping and keeping themselves safe.

‘The Life of Tree’ is another resource that people can add to their tool box in their conversations with children.

Who is the book for?  Who would be interested in reading it?

This book is intended to be read by an adult to Aboriginal children who have been affected by trauma.

This book will appeal to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people care for, live or work with children who’ve experienced trauma such as domestic and family violence.  So this can include family members and foster carers as well as professionals such as counsellors, social workers, support workers or case workers.

 What inspired me to write the book?

 My biggest motivation is to help children tell their stories.  One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in my work with Aboriginal children, apart from the obvious cultural and gender barriers is gaining enough trust, for children to feel that it is OK to talk about the really tough stuff.  And that what they are feeling is normal.  Kids do feel sad and angry about violence in their families.  And it’s shame and fear that really hold them back from speaking up and healing from their experience.  So in order to gain trust we need to create a safe space for the conversation.

Another motivation is to provide a culturally safe tool for professionals.  ‘The Life of Tree’ uses images and themes that children can connect to because it reflects their own cultural traditions and beliefs.  Christine has done an amazing job bringing her artistic talents to this story.  I haven’t really found any other resources like this out there.

Of course, my favourite part is the use of metaphors because this has worked in other areas of my practice.  I’ve been practicing narrative therapy in my work with children for 8 years, with groups of children in remote communities as well as in individual counselling.  I have witnessed how the use of metaphors is effective in connecting with people and creating a safe space for conversation about difficulties in their lives.   Asking direct questions isn’t always going to work, but people seem to spontaneously want to share their own story, if they hear a story that is similar to theirs.

What initially got me interested in this topic?

10 years ago I arrived in the Northern Territory virtually green from university. The first 6 months working out bush as a drug and alcohol counsellor, I drank lots of tea and did a lot of listening.  I later moved into children’s counselling and I was hearing lots of stories from women Elders about their concerns for their children and grandchildren.  I guess, I’ve always been listening for ways I might be able to meet an expressed need – that’s what community development is all about.  If there is some way I can walk alongside communities to find solutions to the problems in their communities, then there is a place for me there.  Along the journey I’ve found myself more and more in the healing space, finding ways of bring healing to people’s lives.

When is the book being released?  How can people buy it?

The book was released on Wednesday 1st March 2017.  You can access further information and a Sneak Peak of pages from the book from my online Shop.  There you’ll also find a downloadable Order Form.

 What about people who can’t afford to buy the book?

We are officially launching a crowd-funding campaign on Tuesday to raise money to send free books to communities.  Christine and I would like to put donated books into all the women’s refuges in remote communities of the NT, WA and Queensland.  We are both aware that the support for children coming into remote safe houses is pretty limited.  ‘The Life of Tree’ is one way, that Aboriginal workers in those services could engage children and directly support them.

So if there is anyone out there who would like to sponsor a book, they can look up our campaign ‘Giving Aboriginal Kids a Voice’

Christine with ‘The Life Of Tree’