Let’s yarn about sleep

30 November 2021

Most people would not question that sleep and mental and emotional health are closely connected. While both sleep and mental health are complex issues, there is strong evidence that improving sleep can have a beneficial impact on mental and emotional health.

Evidence shows that First Nations peoples experience mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety at much higher levels than non-Indigenous Australians. However, the majority of current sleep promotion programs do not take a long-term view, and work in remote First Nations communities has highlighted the lack of culturally appropriate sleep health programs and services as a major barrier in sleep health promotion – limiting uptake of these mainstream health interventions in First Nations communities.

Lets yarn about sleep artists

In consultation with community Elders, parents, carers, First Nations youth and service providers, ISSR researchers (led by Dr Yaqoot Fatima) and university partners are developing Australia’s first-ever sleep health program for First Nations Youth in Mt Isa in remote Queensland. Unlike existing programs, this program is rooted in community ownership and leadership, and focused on First Nations’ health improvement through the agency of First Nations peoples.

Funded by a Medical Research Future Fund Indigenous Health Grant (APP1201569), the project is guided by community Elders in all aspects of the work, including development and approval, data collection, interpretation and research dissemination. By co-designing solutions in collaboration with community, consumers and service providers, the vision of this innovative program is to provide holistic, inclusive and context-responsive solutions to improve First Nations youths' understanding of sleep and empower them to embrace sleep health.

Community members have created an artwork, “Lets Yarn about Sleep”. The artwork is a powerful representation of how the research team, community Elders, youth workers, and service providers work together to connect young people with their culture and improve their sleep and social and emotional wellbeing.

Investment in training and upskilling Indigenous youth workers (IYWs) as "Sleep Coaches" in the community is a strong part of the program. IYWs are trained and mentored in a wide range of skills that include cultural mentoring, youth mental health first aid, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, intergenerational trauma, and narrative therapy. Being community members themselves, IYWs play a key role in strengthening existing relationships and building community trust through transparent communication, and the training and knowledges for delivering sleep health education is crucial for positive community acceptance and uptake of the program. The availability of local "Sleep Coaches" will ensure access to specialist services in remote communities and help achieve sleep health equity.

One of the innovative facets of the project is the partnership with Diabetes Victoria and Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation. These organisations have developed highly effective visual communication tools and resources with culturally appropriate, evidence-based information about diabetes that help the First Nations health workforce talk about the prevention and management of diabetes-related conditions in First Nations communities. The collaboration is exploring the adaption of the successful FeltMan/FeltMum programs to develop culturally appropriate sleep education solutions to be used by the "Sleep Coaches". Given the current lack of suitable resources, the educational tools created will have numerous clinical and practical benefits for social and emotional wellbeing services in First Nations communities.

Despite still less than midway through, the project has received significant attention on mainstream and First Nations media platforms (including ABC Brisbane, National TalkBlack, Koori Mail), as well as appearing as a feature story in the Research Australia report on the impact of the Medical Research Future Fund.

Given the project’s success in acting as a catalyst for incorporating sleep in mental health and well-being services in First Nations communities in Mt Isa, Dr Yaqoot Fatima is now working to expand the program to six other First Nations communities in remote Queensland and build wider networks to promote this program in communities outside Queensland.

Term: 2020 - 2023

ISSR: Dr Yaqoot Fatima, A/Professor Abdullah Mamun, Professor Simon Smith, Professor Lisa McDaid, Dr Nam Tran, Dure Sameen Jabran, Dan Fernandez
La Trobe University: Professor Timothy Skinner
University of Western Australia: Professor Romola Bucks
Flinders University: Professor Peter Eastwood
Central Queensland University: Professor Sarah Blunden
Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute: Dr Stephanie Yiallourou
James Cook University: Dr Sharon Varela, Mr Shaun Solomon, Ms Stephanie King

Partner organisation: Young People Ahead (YPA) Mount Isa, QLD