Perspective like no other:
Joan’s story of beating the odds

When Joan Dhamarrandjij took a break from nursing in her early twenties to experience a different lifestyle, she came face to face with the deadly consequences of alcoholism. After five years on the streets of Darwin, Joan returned home to East Arnhem Land seeking a better life. Today, as an AHP focusing on mental well-being at Miwatj Aboriginal Health Corporation, she draws on her lived experience to help others in need.

A traditional Yolngu woman, Joan Dhamarrandjij was born on Galiwinku in the Djambarrpuyngu of the Dhamarrandjij clan in 1962. Her compassion and level-headed nature make her perfectly suited to helping people understand and address their mental health challenges. She also knows what she’s talking about, and can draw on her personal experience to guide others.

“I’m very passionate about mental well-being. People interpret the concept of mental health in different ways, but I understand it as striving for positive social and emotional well-being. It’s not about illness – it’s about wellness. I try to ensure people are feeling good within themselves and are caring for one another. I want the community to be happy.”

“People’s lives are in your hands in this job. It is a very interesting role with great challenges, but there are many rewarding aspects. When I see a smile on my client’s face at the end of the day, I know I’ve done a good job. I’ll keep working until my knees stop carrying me.”

It’s no coincidence Joan’s mission is to help others find peace. From 29 to 33 Joan left her role as an Aboriginal Health Practitioner Training Officer to live ‘down and out’ in Darwin for five years.

“I decided to go and experience life without work in Darwin – long-grassing and sleeping under the stars. Most of my friends and family were drinking and doing marijuana and I wanted to try it. In Darwin, there was too much alcohol. People were having fits from drinking. I lost a lot of friends during those years. When I started getting the shakes, I knew it was time to get out.”

 

New beginnings

After a year of recovery at home on Elcho Island, Joan returned to work in 1996.

“Although I had physical effects of recovering from addiction, mentally, the transition wasn’t hard. It was always my plan to stop and turn things around – and the time had come for me to stop.”

In 2009, Joan joined Miwatj as an AHP, specialising in emotional and social well-being. Joan draws on her darker years to guide others toward making better choices.

“When I joined Miwatj, I wanted to work within mental health only. This is my passion. I tell my patients that they are the only person who can reach their goal – I cannot reach it for them. But if I turned my life around, anybody can.”

Deep connection and purpose

Joan’s childhood memories are visions of hunting shellfish and mud crabs among mangroves, foraging for berries in summer, and helping her grandmother prepare morning tea for the community.

“Even though I’m Yolngu and I was born and raised here, it’s still hard sometimes. People are sensitive when you reach out to help, even if you know them. You’re not always welcome. Respect is a big thing in our community. As health workers, it’s critical we’re open and understanding.”

Turning her gaze to the future, Joan is confident that Miwatj understands her community and is working to empower Yolngu people.

“Miwatj truly connects with the community at the grass-roots level and employs Yolngu who understand their community. I am very, very proud.”

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