In the last part, I focused on ‘What Have I Learnt?’ from working on Sharing Culture over the past 18 months. I covered five main areas:
- The impact of historical trauma and its consequences
- Other adversities that Indigenous people face that impinge on their basic Human Rights
- The failure of health, social care and criminal justice systems to address underlying problems faced by Indigenous people
- The power of Healing and Cultural Stories
- The richer Indigenous view of health and wellbeing.
Here are areas 6 to 9:
6. Self-determination and safety are key foundations of healing
Self-determination is key to recovery/healing, as individuals and communities define their own goals and design their own unique path(s) to these goals.
Individuals and communities must ‘optimise their autonomy and independence to the greatest extent possible by leading, controlling, and exercising choice over the services and supports that assist their recovery and resilience. In so doing, they are empowered and provided the resources to make informed decisions, initiate recovery, build on their strengths, and gain or regain control over their lives.’ [SAMHSA]
Healing practices must build personal and cultural safety into their programmes and services. Cultural safety is created by providing environments that reflect the unique culture and traditions of the community. These environments affirm Aboriginal identity and foster feelings of belonging.
In contrast to these foundations of healing, Australian governments and associated care systems see themselves as the agents of change for Indigenous people. Decisions that impact on Indigenous peoples’ health and wellbeing are made by politicians and civil servants who have little or no understanding of Indigenous culture and worldview and safety, or how people heal from problems and get their lives back on track.
7. The importance of empowerment and connections in facilitating healing
Since trauma robs the victim of a sense of power and control, so the guiding principle of recovery is to restore power and control. Sadly, much of government and its associated care systems maintain the power differential between ‘helper’ and the person in need of help, thereby creating a barrier to healing.
Empowerment and connections are key for healing to occur. People are empowered when they gain hope (that healing is possible), understanding (of the nature of their problem and how it can be overcome) and a sense of belonging.
They need the opportunity to make their own choices and be reminded of their strengths and assets. Empowerment is key because healing is something that comes from the person, not from a practitioner or treatment.
In relation to the second principle, healing can take place only within the context of relationships (or community). Connecting Indigenous people to their culture, land, family, community, spirituality and history is also key for healing to occur. Culture and land provide meaning and purpose to life, a strong positive identity, and a sense of wellbeing.
The importance of connecting Indigenous people to their culture is illustrated by seminal research in Canada by Michael Chandler and Chris Lalonde. They reported great variation in suicide rates across British Columbia's nearly 200 aboriginal groups: some communities show rates 800 times the national average, while in others suicide is essentially unknown.
They found that communities that have taken active steps to preserve and rehabilitate their own cultures are shown to be those in which youth suicide rates are dramatically lower.
We must empower and connect Indigenous individuals, families and communities to heal themselves, as they cannot afford to wait for western care systems to change. Whilst such change is essential, it is likely to take time, during which more young Indigenous people may self-harm or kill themselves.
8. Create a ‘healing forest’: facilitate healing of the whole community
People do not heal or recover in isolation, nor do they do so in a treatment practitioner’s office. They heal or recover in their social world, in their community.
A multitude of factors within a person’s social ecosystem (at personal, family, community, national levels) influence a person’s healing journey. We must work at various levels of this social ecosystem if we are to help people heal.
Sadly, western culture’s medical model focuses on the internal state of the person - their biochemical makeup - rather than their external environment, and sees ‘solutions’ coming from drugs and treatment rather than by addressing the person’s reality.
Society must people restore or gain new recovery capital, internal (e.g. mental health, self-esteem, resilience), and external (e.g. family support, peer support network, high quality treatment) resources that one can bring to bear on the initiation and maintenance of their healing journey.
Society must develop healing supportive environments that build on the strengths and resilience of individuals, families and communities as they take responsibility for their recovery/healing.
Native Americans emphasise the need to heal the whole community. What is the point of person leaving their community (forest) to get well, only to return and be ‘infected’ by the same factors (sick trees) that produced the problem in the first place?
If you want to treat a sick tree, you must treat the whole forest. Native Americans also emphasise that teachings must affect all parts of the cycle of life - baby, youth, adult and elder - if healing of the community is to occur.
The work carried out by Annalise Jennings in Indigenous communities in Australia illustrates the importance of working with the whole community to create positive change.
9. Focus on solutions, strengths and assets, and gifts and talents
Instead of inspiring people with Stories of success, society continues in the main to be negative about Indigenous health and wellbeing. Indigenous people are constantly told they are a problem or they are wrong, leading to disempowerment. They are blaming them for not doing better, which fuels racism and discrimination and creates barriers to healing.
Focusing on a community’s needs, deficiencies and problems creates an overwhelmingly negative image of that community. It leads to the development of deficiency-oriented policies and programmes. Systems develop that ‘teach’ people the nature of their problems and the services they need.
Community members come to see themselves as people with needs that can only be met by outsiders. They become consumers of services, with no incentive to become productive. They become disempowered. And other people make money.
An alternative approach, Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), focuses on a community’s assets, capacities and abilities. Significant community development takes places only when local community people are committed to investing in themselves and their resources. Communities are built bottom-up, not top-down.
In the ABCD approach, connections between local people are what awaken the power of people to weave the social fabric of an abundant and competent community. Gifts (e.g. kindness) are the raw material of a community.
A community boasts a unique combination of assets upon which to build its future. It must map these assets, beginning with an inventory of the gifts, skills and capacities of its residents.
Indigenous people have a variety of key assets - a strong culture, spirituality, connection to land, family networks and kinship system to name just some - on which to build strong communities. They have people who have proven track records in helping others through crisis and distress. They have healing approaches and initiatives shown to work and role models who inspire and support others.
Government needs to be empowering and supporting these natural resources financially - and leaving them to do what they do - rather than trying to control Indigenous people and impose their own values, culture and less effective treatment approaches. Why are Indigenous healing initiatives and approaches so poorly funded?