Leading Indigenous innovation to tackle eating disorders: meet Leilani Darwin and Stacey Vervoort

03 June 2022

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Through co-design with community, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Co-Production Co-Leads contribute leadership to inform governance and all activities at the Centre to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Eating Disorder Research Strategy.

Open for First Peoples-led applications, the IgnitED Fund offers grants of up to $25,000 to develop the testing of new research ideas that have the potential to positively impact the health and social and emotional wellbeing of people with eating disorders, their families and supports.

At least one IgnitED grant will be awarded to an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander-led applicant. New ideas can pertain to illnesses such as bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, supporting someone who experiences eating disorder issues, and food security or eating-related issues within a community.

Successful Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander applicants will be mentored by Leilani Darwin and Stacey Vervoort to bring alive innovative ideas that have not been previously tested in the eating disorders field. IgnitED grant recipients will engage in a co-design process with a researcher, lived experience expert, and clinical or community practitioners.

Leilani Darwin is a Brisbane-based Quandamooka woman and Founder and CEO of First Nations Co., a lived experience-focused consulting business which delivers improved outcomes for the community. Through her own lived experiences, Leilani is a strong advocate in mental health and suicide prevention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia. She has received Suicide Prevention Australia’s 2022 and 2016 LiFE Awards, and the 2017 Queensland Mental Health Week’s Jude Bugeja Peer Experience Award.

Leilani has held a range of advisory roles, including at Lifeline Australia and as Suicide Prevention Advisor to the Prime Minister. She was integral in establishing the national Lived Experience Centre at Black Dog Institute and Mental Health First Aid Australia's guidelines on the treatment of suicidal adolescents and adults, and has published in journals on topics such as youth mental health and Aboriginal lived experience. Leilani was appointed to the Queensland Suicide Prevention Taskforce by the Minister of Health and, recently, to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group for regional suicide prevention networks and aftercare services at the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) Australia.

Stacey Vervoort is Senior Manager of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategy Implementation at Black Dog Institute in Sydney, a National Consortium partner of the Centre. She is a Gamilaroi woman, of the Goondiwindi/Moree region of Queensland and New South Wales.

A registered psychologist, Stacey has supported individuals and organisations to optimise Social and Emotional Wellbeing (SEWB)^ in health, home and work life. She has an Honours in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Organisational Psychology, with broad experience that includes mentoring, research, counselling as well as tertiary-level teaching to trainee practitioners in SEWB^ approaches to care, and group-based training and development in cultural capacity.

The Co-Leads will help set the national standard for co-production by integrating First Nations expertise at the Centre – building on social justice imperatives to ensure eating disorders research, translation and co-design are directed towards closing the gap, and to generate research and output.

“We want to link Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led applicants with research, lived experience, and clinical or community expertise to produce genuinely co-designed and inspired ideas that have the potential to help find positive strategies for the problem of eating disorders.”

– Leilani Darwin, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Co-Production Co-Lead

“The IgnitED Fund facilitates Indigenous innovation,” said Leilani. “For the first time, we are uniquely positioned to elevate the need to better understand eating disorders, and to build the evidence and best practice for our communities.”

Eating disorders are serious and complex mental illnesses that have significant physical and mental health impacts, high mortality rates and low rates of detection. First Nations Australians are believed to experience high rates of eating disorders, disordered eating and food insecurity issues. According to research^^, eating disorders are comparatively more prevalent among First Nations Australians – whereby 27 percent of Indigenous adults have an eating disorder compared with 16 percent of non-Indigenous adults.

“The research in the area of eating disorders appears to be severely lacking – leaving a significant gap in understanding the experience of disordered eating amongst our community, along with supports that may be needed to help.”

– Stacey Vervoort, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Co-Production Co-Lead

Further research is urgently warranted, including the development of culturally appropriate detection assessment frameworks and culturally informed approaches.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples are strongly encouraged to submit an application for the IgnitED Fund. Applications close Wednesday 15 June 2022.

For enquiries or to discuss your idea with the Centre’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Co-Production Co-Leads, please contact: admin@eatingdisordersresearch.org.au

^ ‘Social and Emotional Wellbeing’ refers to holistic wellbeing that encompasses cultural considerations and the whole community in recognition of the importance in connection to land, culture, spirituality, ancestry, family and community. Recommended resource: Spirituality and Aboriginal People’s Social and Emotional Wellbeing: A Review (2019) – Lowitja Institute


The Australian Eating Disorders Research and Translation Centre is supported by funding from the Australian Government under the National Leadership in Mental Health program.