New regional sleep program targets First Nations people

Eelemarni Close-Brown |

Sleep apnea is being addressed as a common and damaging condition in Indigenous communities.
Sleep apnea is being addressed as a common and damaging condition in Indigenous communities.

A new program aimed at improving sleep health in regional Indigenous communities is linking western science and traditional ways of knowing to better address the health condition of obstructive sleep apnoea. 

According to Queensland University Professor Yaquoot Fatima from the Poche centre for Indigenous Health, one in four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are suffering from the sleep condition.

Sleep apnoea is when a person’s airway is blocked during sleep, causing sudden drops in blood oxygen levels and frequent wakefulness that affects restorative sleep and strains the cardiovascular system.

“People who don’t sleep well are more likely to be overweight and at risk of diabetes, heart disease and mental health issues like depression and anxiety,” Prof Fatima said. 

The condition is characterised by snoring and repeated pauses in breathing, which reduces or completely stops airflow, leading to disrupted sleep and daytime sleepiness.

Indigenous knowledge will be embedded into the program by speaking with elders to better understand how they have been treating sleep apnoea within their own communities.

“What traditional practices have they used if someone is snoring loudly, what advice would they have given the family and what other practices would they have used to promote the care of a person with sleep apnoea,” Dr Fatima said. 

The sleep program has received $4 million from the Australian Medical Research fund and will be an extension of the Let’s Yarn About Sleep (LYAS) program. 

LYAS was designed in collaboration with community in Mount Isa, north west Qld, to provide holistic solutions to improve First Nations youths’ understanding of sleep.

Mount Isa LYAS coordinator Rosyln Von Senden said sleep disorders are frequently undiagnosed within Aboriginal communities and sleep specialists are not easily accessed.

“If anything happens around respiratory or anything around sleep, from Mount Isa, for example, we normally have to travel to Townsville 932 kilometres from here,” she said. 

The program was originally focused on the sleep health of teenagers but during community consultations elders highlighted the lack of sleep health services and said older people were struggling with sleep apnoea. 

Neil Dunne is a LYAS Mount Isa steering committee member and a sleep apnoea program participant.

He said that living with the sleep condition has had an impact on his employment and mental health. 

“I go to work every morning and I’m tired and in the afternoon I’m still tired when I finish work and it causes a lot of stress on me,” Mr Dunne said. 

LYAS sleep coach Karen Chong who’s been running the program in Mount Isa said she is worried that without proper sleep young First Nations people could lose their connection to culture. 

“When we are sleeping all of our messages and everything comes through our dreams and without proper sleep we could lose our culture,” Ms Chong said. 

Ms Chong said that her goal is to help her people by training to become a sleep technologist next year and to work in regional communities including Mount Isa. 

“Similar to the young people I would like to educate them on how to prevent these chronic diseases and to have a longer life because a lot of these chronic diseases are killing my people,” she said.