Enhancing health literacy in Melbourne’s western suburbs

by The Age and The Voice, The University of Melbourne

CHASE (Community Health Advancement and Student Engagement) is a mentorship program that aims to increase health literacy, community engagement and access to tertiary education for high school students in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

Melbourne’s western suburbs comprise a high proportion of low socioeconomic and migrant communities. In some suburbs within this region, the percentage of overweight and obese residents is 50 per cent, one in seven adults suffer from type II diabetes and males have the lowest life expectancy in urban Victoria.

Medical and Master of Public Health students from the University of Melbourne established the CHASE program in 2013 with funding provided by the University’s Equity Innovation Grant. The program has affiliations with many departments within the University and is currently being delivered in three high schools – Copperfield College, Essendon Keilor College and Staughton College.

The program connects high school students with CHASE mentors studying at the University of Melbourne, with the goal of making a difference to the health literacy of these teenagers, empowering them to do their part to transform the future health outcomes of their community.

The program at Copperfield College has just completed its final education workshop. Over the course of the term, CHASE mentors delivered six workshops to high school students covering key topics around health, including nutrition, physical health, sexual health and mental health.

They soon will commence the second phase of the program where the students will be able to formally use the knowledge gained through the workshops to develop ideas for an innovative community-based project.

Sarah Maric, Year 11 and 12 VCAL teacher at Copperfield College, says the program has been a positive experience for the students.

“The CHASE program has provided a unique opportunity for our students to interact with university students one-on-one, enabling them to gain a deeper understanding of important health topics and have a stronger interaction on a personal level,” Ms Maric says.

“The University students have been able to approach students individually and actually identify how much information they’re taking in and explain or elaborate when it’s clear the student isn’t understanding something.

“The students are enjoying and are engaged in the programs. They have interacted with the presenters each time they have come in and there has been positive engagement from every student in the room. That is a very positive result.”

The University of Melbourne students are also seeing results and have enjoyed having the rare opportunity to be involved in preventative health. Bridie Stewart, a third year Doctor of Medicine (MD) student at the Western Hospital and CHASE mentor explains. “As a student at the Western Hospital, I have enjoyed being part of the Western community and talking about health and preventative health themes with students. Most of the time I see the adverse outcomes later on in the lives of community members, so it has been great to be involved in preventative health,” Ms Stewart says.

Ayesha Maharaj, a first year Master of Public Health student and CHASE mentor, feels that the program has given her a great deal of responsibility.

“We can’t just come into the classroom and teach the students about health if we aren’t practising it ourselves,” Ms Maharaj says. “When we were teaching a program about healthy eating, we couldn’t just tell the students to eat healthily if we aren’t leading by example and eating healthily too. Being a mentor has put the responsibility on me to practise what I teach rather than just expecting the students to understand.”

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