Improving mental health services and awareness in Vanuatu

Australian clinical psychologist Dr Damon Ashworth is supporting the Vanuatu Government change attitudes and access to mental health services as part of the Australian Volunteers Program.

Dr Damon Ashworth is a clinical psychologist on a two-year volunteer assignment as a Mental Health Specialist in Vanuatu. Damon is an expert in treating insomnia through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). In Vanuatu, he is working with the Ministry of Health and the Port Vila Central Hospital to implement a four-year nationwide mental health initiative. Here is Damon’s story.

In Australia I see clients on an individual level and I love that, but this volunteer assignment is a chance to make a lasting impact on a larger scale. At this stage Vanuatu has one clinical psychology service, based in in the country’s main hospital in Port Vila. The Vanuatu Government wants that service to be more accessible to people throughout Vanuatu.

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Australian volunteer Damon Ashworth (far left) about to fly to Maewo with mental health nurse Johnny White, to provide a resilience workshop with emergency health care workers, who have been working non-stop following the Ambae volcano natural disaster. Photo: Damon Ashworth
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Australian volunteer Damon Ashworth (left) visiting a patient by boat in Epi with mental health nurse Lawrence Hinge and a community health nurse from Vaemali Health Centre. Supplied: Damon Ashworth

At the moment it’s difficult for people to reach the service because of a lack of transport and the cost of travel. As part of Vanuatu’s four-year mental health initiative (2016-2020), the Government is now at the stage where they’re reaching out to the community to try and reduce stigma about mental health issues.

The aim of my assignment is to raise awareness and train health professionals and non-health professionals to deliver mental health treatments and interventions to prevent issues arising.

So far, I have delivered training on mental health awareness along with my counterparts, to police cadets and community leaders.

My colleagues delivering the training with me include three mental health nurses and a psychiatric registrar from the Port Vila Central Hospital.

The level of engagement and passion in the training sessions about making a positive difference has been inspiring!

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Australian volunteer Damon Ashworth (third from right) with his colleagues, at the Vanuatu medical assessment team training, where they learnt the skills required to assist those most medically in need following a natural disaster or state of emergency. Supplied: Damon Ashworth

We gave a talk to police cadets on identifying mental health and substance use issues in the community and how to effectively respond to these issues when they arise. Since this session, the police cadets have agreed to incorporate a section on mental health and substance use into their curriculum and syllabus for every training group.

Having the opportunity to train 58 community leaders and healthcare professionals was amazing.

— Damon Ashworth

The training was run in collaboration with IsraAid ( Israeli-based humanitarian aid agency) and was co-facilitated by three mental health nurses and provincial officers from Tafea, Torba and Penama provinces in Vanuatu.

As part of the five-day training, 21 community projects were developed by the participants, who will now implement the projects in their communities. The project topics included advocating for disability rights, reducing substance abuse and domestic violence, and empowering women. We'll follow up with the projects over the next six to 12 months and help where needed.

We're also trying to get the first Mental Health Bill for Vanuatu through legislation since 1964. If that gets passed, it may mean better funding and services for mental health in Vanuatu.

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Australian volunteer Damon Ashworth (back, middle) with the mental health and physiotherapy teams from Port Vila Central Hospital and staff at a remote health centre in North Efate. Every Tuesday the hospital teams do community outreach with patients who are unable to come into the hospital. Supplied: Damon Ashworth

Vanuatu is doing a great job of engaging the community in bringing awareness and support to the public about mental health issues. I didn't really know what to expect before I came here. I have already done some amazing things in my first few months of work, and am therefore very hopeful of what can be achieved in my time here.

I am very hopeful of the direction that things are travelling and hope that this momentum will continue to build over my time here.

— Damon Ashworth

There are so many great things about living in Vanuatu. The natural scenery is one thing that sticks out. I love living so close to the beaches. The sunsets are amazing, and I can see the ocean from where I am living. The Ni-Vanuatu people in Port Vila have been very warm and welcoming, and have made me feel very comfortable at work, in the community and at social gatherings. The sense of community and connection is quite apparent, and it's nice to see elders looked up to and respected a lot.

Dr Ashworth is writing about his experiences at his blogs Deliberately Better and Damon Ashworth Psychology