23 August 2021

Blue trees open prison doors to discussion about mental health

| Edwina Mason
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Staff at Mannus Correctional Centre

Staff at Mannus Correctional Centre, near Tumbarumba, with their newly-painted blue tree. Corrective Services NSW aims to have 50 blue trees at workplaces across the state by World Suicide Prevention Day on 10 September. Photo: Department of Communities and Justice NSW.

It’s okay to have a blue day and for some of the region’s corrective services employees, the issue of mental health is being tackled in a very creative way.

They’ve started painting blue trees as a means of raising awareness about suicide and the importance of good mental health, and aim to have 50 blue trees at workplaces across the state by World Suicide Prevention Day on 10 September.

Corrective Services NSW (SCNSW) began participating in the Blue Tree Project in October 2020 and since then, more than 31 blue trees have been installed at CSNSW workplaces across the state.

With blue trees already standing tall at Tumbarumba’s 4000 acre Mannus Correctional Centre farm and another at Cooma Correctional Centre, the project is branching out beyond the prison fences to NSW Corrections offices with murals being painted on walls and blue trees featuring in paintings.

The Blue Tree Project was established in Australia 2018 after a tree was painted on a farm in Western Australia by a young woman in memory of her brother who took his own life.

The project encourages people to paint trees blue and register them online.

Acrylic-on-canvas painting

An acrylic-on-canvas painting is the latest addition to the Blue Tree Project thanks to NSW Corrections staff member and budding artist Naomi Whatman. Naomi was inspired to put brush to canvas because she wanted to help raise awareness about mental health issues and suicide prevention. The artwork is hanging in the Operations Scheduling Unit main office at the Silverwater Correctional Complex. Photo: Department of Communities and Justice NSW.

Jane Cox is the staff wellbeing and resilience project manager for NSW Corrective Services and said the program evolved from a staff member who had lost a son to suicide.

“This person told me her son’s mates had painted a blue tree in honour of her son and she thought it such a good idea she suggested it to me,” Jane explained.

“So we decided to have it part of a wellbeing strategy across corrective services.”

“We’ve had a few suicides among staff and this initiative draws attention to mental health,” she said.

“People ask why someone would paint a tree blue and it opens that door to talk about mental health.”

While the vocation essentially has employees closed off to communities, Jane said the communities still know they’re there.

“We’re people just the same as everyone else – our staff do a tough job and we have to look after each other which is why we’ve had such a push on mental health,” she said.

“We’ve had staff suicide, some staff have experienced mental health issues but the message we are trying to reinforce is “it’s okay not to be okay” and staff need to know they can talk to us and we can help them with whatever they’re going through.”

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A suite of initiatives – supplementary to their decades-long peer support program – has been introduced to assist officers and staff.

Among them is Stand TALR which helps reduce stigma and increase understanding of mental health of staff and Mindarma, a 10 module online course.

All of them work hand-in-hand to strengthen the mental health message which starts with trainees at the corrections academy at Eastwood, trickles through the prison employees, the public face of corrections – which is Community Corrections (Probation and Parole) – and the prison inmates.

Jane said the blue tree project at Mannus Correctional Centre was organised by ground maintenance supervisor John Jeffress, where he and his inmate work crew selected the tree in a spot visible to staff and inmates and it was prepared and painted for all to see.

“At Cooma Correctional Centre overseers Steve Thornton, Julia Gilroy and Mat Lee found the tree on the property, painted it up and it’s in a pot outside the front gate visible to public,” Jane said.

And there are plans afoot for another blue tree at Goulburn Correctional Centre.

“We’re doing lots in the mental health space for staff because it is important to us that they get help and assistance,” Jane said.

“We want to make sure they don’t feel like their alone.”

“We need staff to be resilient not just for us, but themselves,” she explained.

“If people get to a point where they are impacted by mental health it doesn’t just affect their work life, it affects their home life and their relationships.

“And for us one suicide is too many,” Jane added.

If you need help please call the Mental Health Line on 1800 011 511 or Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14. Both numbers are manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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A fantastic symbol, very emotive.

As someone with horticultural experience, Eucalyptus globulus (blue gum) sprang to mind.

Now I’m not suggesting we plant only blue gums in memorium but rather I had in mind, a substantial number across a range of local provinance.

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