Member Spotlight- Tracey Cairns

Posted on 20 September 2021
By Tegan Carrison, Executive Director, AAPi

Why did you choose psychology as a career?

In truth by accident. I was the first of my family to attend University and was aiming to be a Journalist. A Teacher took us to enrol and I needed one more subject. He suggested Psychology. I had never heard of Psychology and so had no idea I could be a Psychologist. By the second year of University it seemed a good fit, as I could still pursue my interest in social justice and I seemed to have a bent for listening to others (again being truthful – I’m one of those Psychologist who also does a lot of talking! No point in me knowing about recovering from mental health difficulties. I want the clients to know).

How did you get into your current area of work? What drew you into this area?

I am currently working in an Aboriginal Medical Service. While working in the Mental Health Service I was receiving referrals from community Elders who wanted someone with an understanding of Aboriginal culture to help the community – and often the referrals didn’t fit the strict criteria of the Mental Health Service. I had been the family historian and was following up fragments of stories about my paternal grandmother, who was part of the Stolen Generation. Working for an AMS seemed a nice way to honour her, and offer more help to the community. On the day I was offered a job at the AMS, I was sent a package with her full name and a photo. At fifty three I knew my grandmother’s name. It felt like a blessing.

What should people know about the work you do?

I work primarily with trauma – trauma related to past injustices and the trauma of current lived experiences. I grew up in a family and community of constant struggle – ‘disadvantaged’. Coming to work in an Aboriginal organisation has given me a new and harsher understanding of what that can mean. I work with people who have no income, because they feel too uncomfortable to go into a government place (Centrelink) – or who have no birth certificate or the documents needed to get a basic benefit. I walk into an Emergency Department with people as the Health staff automatically call security, solely based on associations about the colour of my clients skin. I work with young people who appear successful, and who contemplate suicide because of the pressure of representing what it means to be Aboriginal when working in mostly non-Aboriginal services. I get admiration from acquaintances who admire someone who does ‘that kind of work’. As a light skinned person of a family who did not openly identify as Aboriginal, I’m learning what it means to live in a country that is not ready to come to terms with its history. Trying to work solely on ‘presenting problems’ is not possible when basic needs are not met.

And there is another side. We use a team approach to address the needs of Aboriginal clients – and I feel very nurtured in the team.

I am welcomed and valued in the community, for understanding without my clients needing to explain their culture. I get to work in a beautiful places, and share the healing powers of my clients connection to their country. I am learning more about my grandmother, even though I never got to meet or know her. And I get to work with an incredible team of people of all colours, committed to social and emotional wellbeing for all. I would describe my approach as a social justice or community Psychologist, trying to work within the person’s wider networks to achieve the happy and satisfying life they deserve.

You play a role representing AAPi, can you tell members what it is you do for AAPi?

I have a small role in assisting with an Advisory Committee for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, using my experiences to ensure that AAPi is an inclusive and respectful organisation. I joined AAPi because I thought it was passionate about advocating for our clients as well as us – and have found this is true. It is heartening that they have reached out to ensure many voices are heard. Just recently I contacted AAPi for help understanding legislation, so I could better help a client. That led to a media interview for my client, and a tremendous boost to her self esteem. She felt she mattered, and hadn’t felt that way for a long time. Much more powerful than any counselling session.