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Enhancing health literacy

This blog post was contributed by Dr Richard S Liu, MCRI PhD candidate who is also Deputy Chair of the Board of CHASE,a mentorship program aiming to improve health through education. Here Richard shares his experience promoting health literacy in Melbourne's western suburbs. 

“I prefer the chocolate nougat, but my brother always asks for crème caramel when we go,” Sandra tells me, when I say I work inside the Children’s Hospital.

Sandra’s statement, coming from a year nine student at a suburban school 45 minutes west of Melbourne’s CBD, did strike me as an odd first reaction.  She must have caught my puzzled look as she went on to explain that her parents bribe her and her younger brother with ice-cream when they come to hospital, as a way to encourage them to behave themselves in public. Her favourite ice-cream flavour is choc nougat.

Choosing to eat healthy food, be physically active, avoid sexually transmitted infections and limit the intake of alcohol, tobacco and other harmful substances are decisions that do not come easily to those without knowledge of their own health. It requires people to be empowered to make those decisions, and live in communities that make the healthier choice easy. Understanding and addressing the barriers to healthier choices are crucial steps in preventing the inequities that flow on from health illiterate behaviours and habits, which are often set in childhood.

This was the problem we wanted to tackle when we first started Community Health Advancement and Student Engagement (CHASE).

Now three years on, CHASE has grown into a thriving volunteer not-for-profit organisation, improving health literacy in the Western suburbs of Melbourne through mentorship of young people. The CHASE team recently won the 2016 Minister for Health Volunteer Award in the ‘Innovation’ category in recognition of their contributions.

CHASE has a unique and innovative program that delivers high quality tertiary student mentors to Victoria Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) classrooms, and is run entirely by volunteer staff. Within the CHASE program, mentors encourage VCAL students to understand their own health as well as their communities’; this knowledge is then applied in the ‘action’ phase of the program, where secondary school students are encouraged to lead community projects that address local public health needs. The program culminates in an end-of-year showcase where students demonstrate their newfound knowledge and present their achievements back to the community.

Now in its third year, the program has expanded to five schools in Melbourne’s West, reaching over 200 secondary school students, and utilises the skills of over 50 tertiary student mentors. The benefits flow both ways, as mentors are enriched with education and leadership skills and a holistic perspective on schools, communities and individuals in the West, and mentees have concrete role models to open their minds on what they can achieve.

Sandra tells me, with a grin, “Next time I come to the hospital, I’m going to ask for the apple flavour.”

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