John Egan outside the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service in Preston, photo: Paul Jeffers
John Egan is a proud Yorta Yorta and Wemba Wemba man, originally from Shepparton, Victoria. In 2006, he started work as a security guard with the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS).
Twelve years later, and with training under his belt, he’s acting manager of the organisation’s Family Counselling Service. He’s also a sitting member of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health Committee.
Men supporting men
At VAHS, John co-facilitates men’s groups with Aboriginal psychologist, Graham Gee. The men are invited to talk about who they are and what’s going on for them, as a means of processing their day-to-day issues.
‘They talk about footy and camping and fishing, but they don’t talk about what they need to talk about, they talk about anything and everything else,’ says John. ‘The men’s groups let them do that without being judged and they feel a burden has been lifted.’
‘They talk about footy and camping and fishing, but they don’t talk about what they need to talk about.’
For the past couple of years, John has also been running camps for Aboriginal men from metropolitan Melbourne. A collaboration between several Aboriginal health cooperatives, the Victorian Government and cohealth, a community health service, the camps focus on health, wellbeing, and men supporting men. In coming together and sharing their stories and life experiences – and listening to the advice of professionals such as a nutritionist and a sexual health worker – John says they find an opportunity to heal.
The most recent camp was on Phillip Island. One of the speakers was Lewis Brown, a young Aboriginal worker from #beAware, a VAHS gambling harm prevention project funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. Lewis's talk about gambling harm ran over time because of the number of questions from the men.
‘It was obviously very relevant for a lot of the men and it's a difficult issue to avoid in community,’ says John. ‘A lot of the problem gamblers we get in here come in to … have a look at their finances. But they sometimes end up working on other issues, like mental health, substance abuse and family issues.’
He adds, ‘It's so easy for young people to get caught up in gambling these days. They can do it on their phone, anywhere, and that's why the kids are getting caught up in this.’
Foremost, a love of community and a search for answers
A mechanic by trade, John worked for 15 years as a driver with Rumbalara Aboriginal Health Service in Shepparton. He loved it, working with people and community, driving clients down to Melbourne for healthcare appointments. The two hours there and back always flew by because of the long chats he’d have with his passengers.
‘People would come from the country to Melbourne to use the service, and I used to catch up with folk I hadn't seen in years. Then I started working in mental health services and that was a different thing all together. With physical health, you can see what's wrong with people, but with mental health, you sometimes can't see the anxiety and depression, psychosis. But you need to start to ask yourself: Where does all that stem from, all that pain and trauma?
‘But you need to start to ask yourself: Where does all that stem from, all that pain and trauma?’
‘In our community, a lot of the trauma comes from having been taken, being part of the Stolen Generation, and part of growing up in poverty or difficult circumstances. When I was a kid, we used to move around a lot, and I thought it was because of work – and it was, in part. But it was also as a protective factor against being taken, having the kids taken away.
‘I didn't realise that my father had been through the trauma he had, until I read about it in a book that my uncle wrote last year. That's how it is with lots of Aboriginal men, they don't or can't talk about it. Same as my brother … he had a difficult time with drugs and all that was because of the trauma he'd experienced as a kid growing up.
‘In my experience, the best thing to do is go back, revisit the trauma and acknowledge it, then you can move on. That’s why they had Sorry Day. After that, people can maybe move on and start healing.’
Recovery is more than personal and private
VAHS is the second-oldest Aboriginal health service in Australia. It has been funded to deliver a gambling support service since 2006, making it the oldest Aboriginal gambling service in the country. VAHS sees almost 300 gambling clients a year and the program is embedded into its broader health service.
John says the concept of health in Aboriginal communities is closely linked to the concept of connection and family.
‘This is the best protective factor against any kind of harm.’
‘Connection is the most important thing. Connection to family, to Country, to land. When we take people back to Country, we ask them to take their shoes off and really feel the land. This is the best protective factor against any kind of harm – having that connection to family and Country, and that's what a lot of the men I see have lost.’
VAHS offers financial wellbeing services and counselling in Preston and Fitzroy. You can contact VAHS Preston on (03) 9403 3300 and VAHS Fitzroy on (03) 9419 3000. For urgent support for gambling harm, call Gambler’s Help on 1800 858 858 (24 hours a day, seven days a week).