Niharika Hiremath OAM: King’s Birthday Honours 2024

The Melbourne-based mental health and lived experience advocate has been felicitated for her services to community health.

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Mental health and lived experience advocate Niharika Hiremath has been recognised with an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for her services to community health as part of this year’s King’s Birthday Honours.

At 29 years of age, she is the youngest recipient in this year’s Honours.

Hiremath is currently a National Board Youth Advisor and Chair of the Multicultural Strategy Advisory Group for headspace, the country’s leading youth mental health foundation, and is Co-Founder and Managing Director of the Australian Institute for Diversity in Mental Health.

“I’m really humbled and honoured and very thankful to be a part of the communities that I’m a part of, which I think really have played a big role in getting me to this point,” she tells Indian Link.

Hailing from Karnataka, Hiremath spent her childhood around her grand uncle’s medical clinic, discovering here a desire to help people.

Niharika headspace Frankston
Niharika Hiremath at the launch of headspace’s National Youth Mental Health Engagement Initiative. (Source: Supplied)

This initially manifested as a Commerce and Biomedicine degree at Monash University, but early experiences volunteering for the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) and Dandenong headspace influenced her change of course into advocacy, leading her to study a Graduate Diploma of Psychology, and later, a Master of Social Work at the University of Melbourne.

“I was wanting to become a doctor, a psychiatrist specifically, but in terms of having access to spaces myself, [I really saw] a lack of supports that are culturally responsive and can actually speak to the history and the background that I bring. I quickly realis[ed] that’s a pretty standard experience across a range of different communities as well,” she reflects.

Equally, it was Hiremath’s own diagnosis and journey navigating the mental health system which exposed her to its systematic gaps and the need for diverse voices.

“A glaring [gap] for me is the lack of representation of POCs and those with intersectional identities… communities really deserve agency and self-determination over structures that work for them. It’s inherently hard to achieve that when you hardly ever see people that look like you or think like you when you walk through the door of many of these services,” she explains.

Niharika trades hall launch
Niharika Hiremath at the launch of the Australian Institute for Diversity in Mental Health. (Source: Supplied)

As a migrant majority country, a culturally responsive healthcare system is crucial to work towards.

“People are identifying that this isn’t really niche work anymore…cultural responsiveness [isn’t] just a nice to have anymore, but really forming an integral part of ensuring that the systems that we have in place are actually fit for purpose for the majority of folks in this country and doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Hiremath explains.

As such, Niharika Hiremath’s work focuses on how intersectionality and lived experience can be leveraged to address these gaps and create a safer and more culturally responsive system. Her appointment to the National Mental Health Commission catalysed this aim, driving investment in mental health and preventative health as part of the Government’s 2019 Long Term National Health Plan.

“Engaging the lived experience of multicultural communities in advocating for change within the sector is a gold mine which we’re not really tapping into. Again and again, service systems and structures keep coming up against the same barriers; you’re putting lots of money into the same ways of engaging. A lot of those barriers could have been addressed by building stronger support structures for intersectional communities to utilise their own lived experience and not just as a tick and flick exercise,” she says.

Her current role as a Lived Experience Partner at Mind Australia sees her utilise her own cultural perspective and experience of adversity to inform a deeper understanding of how the mental health system could operate.

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Niharika Hiremath speaks at the launch of Embrace Multicultural Mental Health. (Source: LinkedIn)

“I think what’s great about [Lived Experience] emerging as a discipline is that there’s now support structures in place to let people engage in a safe way and ensure that what they’re saying will be heard. They’re being compensated for their time and their energy, and the process by which they’re providing that input is also done in a way that doesn’t endanger them,” Hiremath says.

Having found the strength to lead from her own experiences and adversities, Niharika Hiremath encourages other budding South Asian advocates to trust their gut and not fear standing up for what they believe in.

“I think my journey involved moving away from community norms and family norms and advocating for [mental health] when it wasn’t openly talked about. Being able to see the shift in both my personal relationships, but also within this community more broadly taught me to trust my own gut in the process, [and see] advocating as something that is okay to do if there’s something that you strongly believe in,” Hiremath says.

READ ALSO: Sakshi Thakur OAM: King’s Birthday Honours 2024

Lakshmi Ganapathy
Lakshmi Ganapathy
Lakshmi Ganapathy is an emerging journalist and theatre-maker based in Melbourne.

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