Working with communities that have high rates of suicide, Tracy Westerman knows hopelessness and marginalisation can be deadly.
The Aboriginal psychologist, who delivers suicide prevention programs in remote areas, was this week crowned WA’s Australian of the Year.
She wants Aboriginal teenagers struggling to find hope for the future to know such an honour is not out of reach.
Having grown up in the inland Pilbara town of Tom Price, Dr Westerman did her high school exams via long-distance education.
When she was 15, she read a book about psychology and decided it was her calling.
She won a place at the University of WA and moved to Perth, where she suffered the “biggest culture shock ever” and struggled to catch a bus, cross Stirling Highway and reconcile mainstream psychology with Aboriginal culture.
“As a Pilbara woman, and as someone who had no expectations around me of being successful other than from my family, I find there’s this thing called the tyranny of low expectation,” Dr Westerman said.
“I want an Aboriginal kid to pick up the newspaper and go ‘far out, she did it’.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t do something. Never let go of your dreams.”
Dr Westerman, a Njamal woman, founded Indigenous Psychological Services in 1998 to address the high rates of mental illness among Aboriginal people.
She loves going to work with her people every day, but laments the extent of racism and marginalisation they face and how it contributes to so much stress and mental ill-health.
She wants policymakers to talk more about the Aboriginal communities that don’t have suicides and learn from them.
“To me, that’s the story,” Dr Westerman said. “What is it about those communities that protects them from what troubles other communities that are caught in crisis or a chronic status of suicide and distress?”
Dr Westerman said many Australians had very little experience with Aboriginal people and did not realise they had an unconscious bias, so she gently tried to “make the unconscious conscious” and help them look at their reaction to Aboriginal people in an objective way.
“It’s very common that people go, ‘Oh my God, I just had no idea’.”