The context of psychology matters: meet one of APS’s Bendi Lango recipients 

Australian Psychological Society

To Joshua O’Neill, an up-and-coming organisational psychologist, a well-rounded psychology practice means considering community, social and cultural factors – especially when working with Indigenous clients and employees.

Ever since his high school days Joshua O’Neill was attracted to a career in psychology. He was fascinated by the underlying mechanisms that drove people to behave the way they did – he wanted to get under the hood of the human condition.

But at this formative period in his life, when his curiosity was piqued, he faced a situation that would either squash his dreams or light a fire under him.

“When I was in year 12, I had a teacher who told me, essentially, ‘You won’t amount to anything.’ I was by no means a perfect student… but there was part of me that was like, ‘Well, I’ll show you.’ I think she’d be quite shocked to see where I got to and I’m really proud of that.”

Over the past five years, O’Neill has worked as a registered psychologist in East Arnhem Land, Katherine, Darwin, Canberra and the surrounding NSW region. Initially, his work focused on alcohol and drug (AOD) support.

“The types of clients you see doing AOD work are wide-ranging. Your first client might be living on the streets and your second could be an executive or politician. You get a lot of exposure and it teaches you that people are, essentially, all the same. We’re all on the same bus together.”

This clinical work also taught O’Neill the importance of layering social, community and cultural nuances into psychological practices.

“Psychology has a lot more to offer than just what’s on an individual level. To be a good, well-rounded psychologist, you need to consider the context that people are in – the groups they belong to and the community they’re in,” he says.

O’Neill says “seeing people in context” is what excites him about the psychology profession – be that in their family/friend circle, in their community or in their workplace.

“I like to see things through a systemic lens,” he says.

This is what attracted him to study a Masters of Organisational Psychology at the University of Queensland (UQ). He will complete his studies later this year with support from APS, as one of two successful candidates of the 2023 Bendi Lango bursary, which was established to support postgraduate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychology students.

“I was absolutely thrilled to win. I didn’t think I was in the running at all, so I was lost for words when I found out. I called my family and they were all super excited for me and I told one of my referees [a UQ lecturer] who ended up telling the whole department – so I had a lot of people congratulating me.”

Josh’s journey into psychology

O’Neill’s first steps into the psychology profession started via an undergraduate degree in Perth in 2012. He then completed a two-year internship via the 4+2 pathway in Canberra, which led to him becoming a registered psychologist.

After a number of years working in AOD, child and adolescent mental health and neuropsychology, he started to become interested in balancing employee wellbeing and organisational performance through focusing on optimising training needs, improving job satisfaction and supporting wellbeing factors (such as sleep and social connectedness). A Masters in organisational psychology was calling him.

“I was fortunate to have a lot of great supervisors during my 4+2 internship who indirectly influenced my thinking about people within systems. They did that through exposure to things like group therapy, family therapy and inviting me to co-present a lecture at ANU on the social determinants of alcohol and drug (AOD) use.

“I liked that it was taking the emphasis off a purely individualistic approach,” he says.

But it was at an offsite planning day with his colleagues at that made him seriously consider his post-graduate studies in organisational psychology.

“Some of my colleagues thought of it as just another admin exercise, but I left that day feeling super energised, more than what I would feel after a typical day of clinical work.”

He didn’t want to have to become a manager to effect change, he wanted to support the managers and leaders to design more sustainable, engaging and inclusive ways of working; he wanted to work on the big-picture system of work.

Prior to commencing his Masters degree, O’Neill was placed on secondment with the Northern Territory Public Service from his role as a psychologist with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service. In this role, he worked on an affirmative action plan to prioritise Indigenous applicants for jobs.

His role was to review selection decisions to ensure panels weren’t introducing biases into the hiring process, which he found to be fulfilling work.

“[I also worked] through workplace grievances and helped the Aboriginal strategic workforce team in the [NT] public service. I worked closely with them around initiatives that affect Aboriginal employees in the public service.

“I was able to see first-hand how unconscious and conscious biases were influencing selection decisions. It was common to see panels not selecting Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander applicants based on stereotypes rather than their suitability for the role.

“Applicants were not being progressed through a selection process because panels would assume they would be late, wouldn’t turn up for work or would be too hard to support, when this is simply not true for the majority of applicants. There was a big educational and advocacy component to this role.”

He also gained further experience via his student placement with an Indigenous community health service in Queensland, which he did with other students in his cohort. Here, he worked on an initiative to help the organisation understand what was attracting Indigenous employees to their work – and what made them stay. “It was a unique service where over 50% of their staff were Indigenous, so I was able to engage with them over interviews and hear what they liked about work, what initially drew them to work there, all those things.”

Responses like ‘getting work with mob’, culturally sensitive leadership and flexibility stood out as key themes.

“It was a great organisation that really embedded Indigenous ways of working throughout their whole organisation. It showed me that organisations that invest in supporting Indigenous ways of working can have significant attraction and retention advantages.

“It was also lovely because I got to meet lots of mob in Southeast Queensland, which is a place I’ve never lived before.”

Culturally appropriate care

This isn’t to say that O’Neill sees himself focusing on organisational psychology alone. In fact, he hopes to combine all his learnings from his AOD work and organisational psychology, to tackle both the mental and social challenges that his patients face, especially in Indigenous communities.

“I really try to make an effort, when I live and work in a different place, to learn about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from that region.

” I grew up in Darwin, so I was pretty well connected already, but when I worked there, I became a member of the Aboriginal Mental Health Advisory Group, which aimed to improve cultural safety in mental health services and support Aboriginal workers with culture-related workforce barriers, such as navigating government systems and role conflict. This was a great way for me to connect with Aboriginal employees and get a direct line to executive management.”

The mental health system is very westernised, which can make it hard for Indigenous patients to navigate, he says.

“Something I’m really passionate about is making these services accessible.”

To him, that means creating a space in which both patients and employees feel safe to express their true cultural identity without being reprimanded.

“This might mean critically thinking about what practices and processes are supporting or hindering cultural safety and adapting as needed,” he says.

It’s also invest in understanding how your own background, experience and culture influences your practice.

“Utilise and learn from existing supports, such as Indigenous Liaison Offers who can provide cultural brokerage and cultural support,” he says.

“I really enjoy helping people see things like mental health issues or employment issues through a cultural lens, because a lot of typical mental health conditions may present completely differently for mob. There are issues that only come to light when you place culture at the centre of treatment.”

For example, O’Neill had an Indigenous client whose mental health challenges were exacerbated by his social circumstances.

“He ended up being disconnected from Centrelink and his electricity. There were these huge issues happening for him. The mental health system was very focused on addressing his mental health issues without accounting for a lot of the things that were happening in his home life – the contextual factors.”

The patient had to go away for ‘Sorry Business’, a culturally significant period when Aboriginal people mourn the loss of family, friends, land or culture.

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