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Peer support helps boost Indigenous health in West

An innovative peer mentoring program is helping improve the health of Indigenous residents in Melbourne's west.

The project, developed earlier this year by Victoria University researchers with government and community organisations, uses trained Indigenous volunteers to encourage others in their community to stop smoking, eat healthier and get more exercise.

So far the 100 people involved in the program have established a free food bank, set up two netball teams, and created an anti-smoking program in which participants reflect on their relationship with cigarettes by creating photo stories.  

Dr Gail Paasse, a research fellow at VU's Australian Community Centre for Diabetes, said the project aimed to improve the health of urban Indigenous residents who are more than twice as likely as the rest of the population to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, strokes and cancer. About 10 per cent of Victoria's Indigenous population lives in Melbourne's west.

The peer mentoring model has proven effective because the concept is already ingrained in Indigenous culture through the use of Elders, clans or families providing friendship, guidance and support, she said.

"There's no point just bringing in dietitians and doctors, or handing out gym passes," said Dr Paasse. "We found peer mentoring effective because it's culturally relevant, less formal, and based on a more equal relationship."

Dr Paasse said people who had spare time on their hands had proven to be the best mentors, embracing their new skills and opportunities, and enhancing social interaction. The peers received training in a broad range of skills including first aid, physical activity leadership, food hygiene, photography, and smoking cessation. Several are students in VU's Mumgu-Dhal program, designed for Indigenous people wanting to re-engage in education.

In addition to health improvements, participants are establishing strong networks between Indigenous communities in Melbourne's west when they meet for weekly netball games or to collect fresh fruit and vegetables from VU's St Albans Campus or Melton's Djerriwarrh Community House.

The media are invited to meet program participants at the next food bank delivery at VU's Iramoo Environment Centre, St Albans Campus, this Thursday.

When: Thursday 9 December 2010
Time: 2.30-3.30pm
Where: Iramoo Environment Centre, St Albans Campus, Victoria University (enter via McKechnie St)

Contact:          
Dr Gail Paasse, Research Fellow
Australian Centre for Diabetes, Victoria University
Phone: +61 3 9919 2095
Mobile: 0407 770 109
Email:
gail.paasse@vu.edu.au

Media Contact:
Ann Marie Angebrandt, Communications Officer
Marketing and Communications Department, Victoria University
Phone: +61 3 9919 5487
Mobile: 0403 556 001
Email: annmarie.angebrandt@vu.edu.au

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