Taylah Thompson-Patfield never saw herself studying. When she finished high school, she was eager to work and earn money, and spent four years as a FIFO worker for a mining company based in the Pilbara. After taking on full-time caring responsibilities for her two younger brothers at 21, Taylah says she had an opportunity to reset, and do something that interested her.

“I was interested in psychology,” says Taylah, “because I wanted to better understand my family members, the dysfunction I grew up in, and why my life was the way it was.

“But I didn’t think studying psychology was realistic, that I would cut it.”

Now 29, the Noongar Yamatji woman is only two months away from graduating university with a Master of Clinical Psychology, following seven years’ full-time study. It’s an achievement she says wouldn’t have been possible without a scholarship from The Westerman Jilya Institute for Indigenous Mental Health (Jilya).

Taylah applied for the scholarship while in her second year, the day before applications closed. As a scholarship that’s awarded not on grades, but on a student’s curiosity, sacrifice, and ‘how many gaps they have to close’, she says the application experience was unique and empowering.

“They listened to our stories, they heard us and saw something in us.

“The special part about the Jilya scholarship is having someone believe in you, wanting you to do well and to finish your degree.”

Jilya’s Founding Director, Dr Tracy Westerman AM, has dedicated her life’s work to developing specialist, evidence-based practice for Indigenous clients and communities.

As a direct result of the unacceptable rates of child suicides in Aboriginal communities, which are four times that of non-Indigenous children, she launched the Dr Tracy Westerman Indigenous Psychology Scholarship Program in 2019 with a personal donation of $51,800.

“By eliminating the very real financial barrier for Aboriginal students to study,” says Dr Westerman, “the scholarship program aims to facilitate the training of more Indigenous psychologists, skilled in Indigenous-specific mental health, suicide prevention and intervention programs, ultimately taking their experience back to the most disadvantaged, high-risk communities to facilitate real change.

“We’re building an army of Indigenous psychologists.”

Including Taylah, the Jilya army is now 55 strong, and with only 311 registered psychologists identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander in Australia, Jilya’s contribution to improving access to culturally informed Indigenous mental health care is significant.

To date Jilya has supported 20 students to graduation (7 undergraduate degrees, 7 with Honours, and 6 with Master’s degrees.) Those that have graduated with an undergraduate or Honours are continuing their pursuit to complete the 6-year pathway in order to become registered psychologists. By the end of 2024, the number of Jilya students that have graduated with a Master’s degree will grow from 6 to 12.

Taylah believes that trust in the therapeutic alliance between a therapist and client is critical to keeping an individual engaged in treatment.

“It’s important for the client to feel safe and work with someone that understands their context historically, socially and culturally,” she says. “It’s going to encourage their help seeking.

“The more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that can access that kind of service, the more it will contribute to closing the gap.”

In 2023 PRF committed $4.3 million over three years to Jilya to expand the scholarship program, including to Alice Springs, and continue to build evidence and best practice interventions.

PRF Head of Justice and Safety Dominque Bigras says that mental ill-health is one of the major social determinants of incarceration, and that increased access to culturally informed care is critical to reducing the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system.

“All communities need access to appropriate mental health services to thrive, and for First Nations communities, the current gap in culturally and clinically informed mental health responses is having a detrimental, long-term impact.

“Jilya is filling that gap by significantly increasing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists, which has the potential to transform mental health outcomes in regional and remote communities.”

When Taylah completes her studies in May she says she’s looking forward to putting down the books, hitting the road, and seeing what’s out there.

“I haven’t had a chance to sit with my achievements and work out what I want to do next,” she says.

“What I do know is that I want to work with Aboriginal children. I want to travel up north and take my studies to where there is a scarcity of services.”