Doctor of Philosophy (Clinical Psychology) graduate Justin Trounson has always been interested in making a difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians. A registered psychologist and published researcher, he now runs a series of programs that recognise the diverse needs of Indigenous inmates in the Victorian prison system.
“I grew up in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, a pretty rough area in the 1980s. I noticed that some other kids my age took certain paths in life, in part due to their surroundings, so I decided I wanted to work with young people to help them stay on track.
I was drawn to Swinburne because their staff had a reputation for using a highly practical teaching methodology and their psychology courses were well recognised by industry.
After a few years of study, I was thankful for the opportunity to write a PhD. I argued prisoners and correctional staff needed more on-going psychological training. However, soon after commencing, a family member became unwell and I suddenly needed to juggle my studies and caregiving. In recognition for persisting with my studies, I received a Student Achievement Award, which was much needed during a very difficult time in my life.
My PhD research examining the wellbeing of correctional staff helped to form the basis of a larger government grant. The grant funded a three-year project run by the Centre for Forensic and Behavioural Science that aims to increase the wellbeing and resilience of Australian prison staff and inmates. We developed wellbeing training programs for correctional officers and inmates aimed at addressing the adversity they face day to day. To see research I am involved in put into practice in Victorian prisons has been absolutely amazing.
"It’s not just about getting perfect grades – it is about knowing why you bothered in the first place."
A big driver for me is the fact that Indigenous Australians are 13 times more likely to go to prison than non-Indigenous Australians and make up over a quarter of the Australian adult prison population. Incarceration by itself is not a solution – we need ways of addressing the social and psychological issues all Australians face in and out of prison.
Being of Indigenous descent, I wanted to do more. I co-founded the Port Phillip Prison Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Men’s Homework Club to encourage and support prisoners to engage in education and rehabilitation programs.
In the club, student volunteers meet inmates weekly and help them to complete education programs and engage in learning. It also provides a culturally safe space for Indigenous people to meet, connect with their cultural identity and consider plans for the future.
The response has been amazing. Prisoners have a greater level of engagement in their own education and gain confidence about their future. We have a waitlist of prisoners wanting to participate – which is really encouraging and the volunteers love it. Ultimately, we want to ensure inmates leave prison knowing what they can achieve next.
I was lucky enough to be awarded Swinburne's inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Fellowship in 2017. Being the recipient of this fellowship allows me to continue my research for the next three years.
For anyone looking to become a clinical psychologist, the study provides doorways to what you're passionate about. But it’s not just about getting perfect grades – it is about knowing why you bothered in the first place. You need to demonstrate your interest in working with people and community, so any experience working with people managing difficulties will be beneficial.
Finally, don't let people tell you that you can't do it. Would I have ever thought I would end up as a psychologist and researcher? No. But I love it and it's incredible."