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The loss of RFDS from Ntaria – funding slashed

By Pamela Nathan

I have permission to print the letter below, written by members of the Ntaria Early Childhood Reference Group and the Ntaria School Council who are extremely concerned that they may lose their primary mental health service offered through the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS).

I encourage you all to read this letter.

Ten communities face the closure of their mental health services through RFDS, including Ntaria, and this does not include the many outstations. The Mental Health Services Rural and Remote Services Areas (MHRRSA) program of seven years, which has serviced communities near the SA border (including the NT Pitjantjatjara communities-Docker, Mutiljulu, Imanpa-up to the Pintupi/Luitja/Aranda areas including Kintore, Papunya, Wallace Rockhole) and more, has been slashed. Trauma, violence, suicide and mental health issues are major problems for all of these communities. Individuals and families have been working together with practitioners, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, including medical and traditional healers.  The practitioners, who have been with the service for up to seven years, have offered accessible, locally tailored services and culturally safe services on a weekly or fortnightly basis. The retention and commitment of these practitioners has privileged the development of wide-ranging and deep relationships and allowed them to meet unmet need defined by the communities.

New expressions of interest are being called for by NTML.

The communities have not been consulted about the loss/reduction of their services and people feel distressed and disempowered and very concerned. The staff employed by MHRRSA are bewildered and devastated. There is now an outcry and a demand for accountability and transparency of decisions made.

CASSE was poised to form a partnership with RFDS out west with four communities, developing and funding a project called ‘Living Cultural Tools – Tools of Country, Ceremony and Life’, and facilitating the elders to mentor the youth and strengthen the communities and enhance well-being and reduce self harm and suicides.

Funding cuts and withdrawal of services may well herald traumatic ruptures out and the gap may well widen.

I was in Canberra at the Healing Foundation forum a week ago, where Aboriginal leaders spoke to the high suicide rates in the younger generation and called for Cultural Solutions for Cultural Wounds. Let’s show our support of these communities and call on Minister Dutton for an explanation for the cuts and to restore the services.

These cuts to the vital mental health services are shameful and may well be a blood stain on the nation of Australia.


Dear Mark,

We are wondering if you can help. As members of the Ntaria Early Childhood Reference group and the Ntaria School Council we are extremely concerned that Ntaria is about to lose its primary mental health service offered through the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Our concern is that we need a professional and appropriate primary mental health service. This service is critical to Western Aranda family wellbeing. The mental health wellbeing of families underpins what Western Aranda children need to flourish.

Our understanding is that the RFDS was invited to put in a proposal to Medicare Local to continue to deliver its service to the Western region. It did so, but Medicare Local was unable to offer RFDS a level of funding that would enable the team to continue to deliver a high level of professional care. The RFDS therefore had no option but to decline the funding offer.

Although the Commonwealth has made a public commitment to, ‘ a transition period to allow continuity of frontline services and time for communities and  service providers to adjust to the new arrangements’, it is difficult to see how this has happened in this case. The Commonwealth Government has also made a commitment to equity with respect to services in Indigenous and non Indigenous communities. A high quality primary mental health service is surely part of this equity commitment.

The RFDS has been operating in this region for seven years and provides a complementary service to the Tertiary Mental Health service provided by MSRMHT.  This enables a focus on early intervention and suicide prevention.

There is evidence to suggest that the delivery of this service has reduced the rate of emergency and expensive evacuations to Alice Springs Hospital.

What is of concern with the current situation is that the RFDS team has demonstrated some critical strengths that will be extremely difficult to replace. These include:

  • The team has long established relationships with families in the region, which is critical to any inter-cultural program but particularly so in the context of mental health.  These relationships – and the trust that underpins them – take a very long time to establish. Many RFDS team members have been delivering this service to the same communities in the region for years.
  • In Ntaria and Utju, staff are visiting weekly.  This provides community members with surety that someone is coming, they know who will be coming and they know when staff will be there.
  • The team has also demonstrated flexibility in its work. They bring in multiple modes of therapeutic intervention and integrate local Aboriginal healing practices. It has taken considerable time to develop and refine these approaches and this knowledge base cannot be replicated.

To lose a service such as this at any time is of great concern, but with the recent visit to Ntaria of the Royal Commission into Child Abuse in institutions, there is anecdotal evidence of increased levels of disclosure of child abuse in the Ntaria community. While Western Aranda families have the option of reporting to Relationships Australia, that service does not have pre-existing relationships with people in this area and families have to make a specific visit to Alice Springs to make contact with them.

Further, there is already an unmet need for counselling services for those being referred by the legal system.

In view of the above we would therefore appreciate it if you could urgently follow up with your counterparts in Canberra to find out:

  • Why the level of funding allocated to primary mental health services in this region (Western Region) appears to have been reduced?
  • What Medicare Local intends to offer Ntaria in terms of primary mental health care and to what extent it is any new service commensurate with approaches used by the existing RFDS service?

As we are unclear about what your role is with respect to these matters, could you let us know if and how you can help. If not, could you refer us to the appropriate person who might assist.   We will be bringing this matter to the attention of community members so it would be very useful to know how we might proceed if local people want information about an avenue through which they can express their view.

Many thanks

Katherine Moketarintja, Ntaria School Council Glenda Lucas,  Chair,  Early Childhood Reference Group, Western Arrernte Health Aboriginal Corporation

Lynette Lodding, Coordinator, Ntaria Families as First Teachers Katharine O’Donoghue, Remote Schools Attendance Program, Tjuwanpa Outstation Resource Centre Robby Leyden, Western Arrernte Health Aboriginal Corporation

Annie Kennedy, Coordinator, Stronger Communities for Children

Cath Greene, Principal Ntaria School

Jayne Kollner, Coordinator Mums, Regional Bubs and Little Kids Program