Aunty Isabel Reid and Dr Derek Chong speak at Wagga's Merging Minds conference.

Wiradjuri Elder, Wagga’s Aunty Isabel Reid and Psychiatrist Advanced Registrar Dr Derek Chong at Wagga's Merging Minds conference.
Wiradjuri Elder, Wagga’s Aunty Isabel Reid and Psychiatrist Advanced Registrar Dr Derek Chong at Wagga's Merging Minds conference.

Two inspiring indigenous leaders added their powerful messages to  this year’s Merging Minds conference held in Wagga on Tuesday.

The fourth annual conference, which explores issues of drugs, alcohol and mental health, nominated indigenous issues as one of its focus areas this year.

Wiradjuri Elder, Wagga’s Aunty Isabel Reid gave the welcome to country, while Psychiatrist Advanced Registrar Dr Derek Chong was one of the keynote speakers.

But the two shared more than just the same stage, with their unfailing belief in the importance of a strong culture and identity as the key to weathering life’s storms.

Aunty Isabel said the conference was a chance for people to talk about their experiences and share their stories.

“You won’t get it out of a text book, you have to have lived it,” she said.

A member of the stolen generation,  she believes sharing her own story helped her let go of destructive anger.

“I was taken from my family at the age of seven.  I was sent to Cootamundra Girls Home and my brother was sent to Kinchela (Boys’ Home at Kempsey),” she said.

“I was angry for a long time but I got through it by telling my story.”

She is now instrumental in supporting former girls from the home  and has taken part in documentaries about what happened there.

“All people have experiences and everyone has their own story.  But often no one asks, where did this all start? 

“I work with our boys in the jails. People don’t ask what happened to them.  People are not listening, and this is right across the board, not just with indigenous people.”

QLD psychiatrist, Advanced Registrar Dr Derek Chong, will shortly become only the third indigenous psychiatrist in Australia.

He left the conference in no doubt about his passionate views connecting sense of identity and culture with personal strength and the will to succeed.

“We’ve had our kids dance here this morning,” he said.  “This is not just an exhibition, this is re-enforcing our connection with the land, our culture, our sense of family and community.”

He said studies had shown when young North American Indians were taught and shown their culture and language suicide rates dropped dramatically.

Dr Chong said he always knew he wanted to work in the field of medicine.

“When I told my teacher at school I wanted to do medicine, she said some people were just better working with their hands and to pursue something more realistic,” he said.

“Then when I repeated Year 12, they told me statistics showed people would not do any better. Well, I’m not a statistic.”

The fourth ‘Merging Minds Conference: Where Drugs, Alcohol and Mental Health Meet’, was held at the Inspire Convention Centre with the theme of ‘Diversity’.

Delegates from across Australia included clinicians, consumers, carers, academics, community members and educators.

“Mental illness and addiction affects people from all walks of life and across all ages and stages,” said James Lamerton, CEO of Murrumbidgee Primary Health Network (MPHN).

Jenni Campbell, Executive Manager of Design and Integration at MPHN, said the conference is held every two years and has grown in size; now attracting many people including professionals, people with lived experience, and carers.

“The main motivating factor behind the conference is to provide current and relevant information along with practical strategies for everyone,” Ms Campbell said.

Merging Minds Conference is coordinated by Wagga’s Comorbidity Steering Committee. 

Members include: Murrumbidgee PHN, Murrumbidgee Local Health District, Calvary Health Care Riverina, Carers Assist, Grow, GEO Group Australia, and the Schizophrenia Fellowship.