What Have I Learnt?
One of the most important aspects of my working on Sharing Culture over the past 18 months has been related to what I have learnt and how this will shape my future work with Sharing Culture.
Before looking at this, it is worth mentioning that I have spent over 35 years working in the addiction and mental health fields. During this time, I have gained an extensive knowledge and experience of psychological, sociological and biological aspects of addiction and mental health recovery and healing.
However, when I started working in the Indigenous health and healing field in 2013, I knew embarrassingly little about these specific topics… and Indigenous culture and history in general. Since then, I have learnt a lot, some of which I would like to summarise under ten main points below.
First, however, I’d like to emphasise the most important thing I’ve learnt over the past 18 months (and the previous 14 years of working with people’s wellbeing). Listen! Listen with compassion and empathy. And act on what I hear, when I can… in the best possible way. We need to hear the voices of Indigenous people and act in a way that facilitates healing and the building of resilience.
Anyway, here are the first five of ten points which outline some of what I have learnt, not just since working with Indigenous people, but over the past 15 years. Some of what you read is a reiteration of what I have said in earlier parts of this series of blogs.
1. The impact of historical trauma and its consequences
As a result of the historical experiences of colonisation (and associated violence and control), forcible removal of children, and loss of culture and land, Indigenous people of Australia have suffered a trauma that has been passed unwittingly down through the generations.
The consequences of this historical, or intergenerational, trauma include poor physical health, mental health problems, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, self-harm and suicide.
Historical trauma (and its consequences) has been experienced by Indigenous people in many other countries, including America, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
Few non-Indigenous and Indigenous people know about historical trauma and how it impacts. A common response of non-Indigenous people to the past is, “Why can’t they [Indigenous people] just get over it?” In order to enhance understanding and reduce racism and discrimination, it is essential that all schoolchildren (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) are taught history from an Indigenous perspective and told how the colonisation process impacts even today.
Many young Indigenous people affected by trauma feel angry, but they don’t know why. Understanding how past events impact today can facilitate healing. It can help a person understand why they have problems in a manner that allows them to simultaneously see that, while victims of oppression, they retain the necessary agency to change their lives for the better.
2. Other adversities that Indigenous people face that impinge on their basic Human Rights
The impact of historical trauma and its consequences is not the only adversity that Indigenous people face today. Other adversities include economic and social disadvantage, experiences of racism and discrimination, paternalism and control, and ongoing grief resulting from multiple bereavements.
Indigenous people are sometimes removed from their land, see sacred sites damaged or destroyed, or have their communities closed down (and are often not re-housed when this happens). Indigenous people are often blamed for their problems, despite the fact that their lives have been controlled by non-Indigenous people.
The basic Human Rights of Indigenous people, as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, are infringed upon by governments in Australia (and other countries). All the factors described above are known to impact negatively on health and wellbeing.
3. The failure of health, social care and criminal justice systems to address underlying problems faced by Indigenous people
Society’s health care, social welfare and criminal justice systems do not address the core issue of trauma amongst Indigenous people. Rather, they just attempt to manage the symptoms, e.g. by prescribing medications (which often worsen the problem) or incarcerating people.
This ‘band-aid’ approach has fostered a climate of disempowerment, hopelessness, blame and shame that perpetuates psychological problems. It has placed strong barriers in the way of healing. It has contributed to youth suicides, incarcerations and child removals amongst Indigenous people reaching record levels in Australia at the present time. Trauma will pass on to another generation.
4. The power of Healing and Cultural Stories
Large numbers of Indigenous people live happy and successful lives, many of whom have healed from historical trauma (and its consequences) and other adversities. They have shown great strengths and resilience, as well as the necessary coping mechanisms, skills and knowledge, to rise above adversity.
These people are the lived solution, the role models who can help inspire and teach other Indigenous people to heal. Their Healing Stories need to be told and widely distributed.
Indigenous people have a diverse range of successful cultural healing approaches. Some of these, such as the Native American Wellbriety Movement, are impacting positively on many thousands of people’s lives. The stories of these healing initiatives - which in Australia generally receive little or no funding from government - and other community-based initiatives need to be told.
Society must highlight and utilise the strengths and assets of Indigenous people and their culture, rather than just focus on problems. Indigenous people have shown remarkable resiliency in surviving the considerable adversity they have experienced over the past 200 years. We must learn from this - Healing Stories can help change the narrative. Cultural Stories are also needed that create pride and facilitate cultural connectedness.
5. The richer Indigenous view of health and wellbeing
Many experts believe that the western behavioural healthcare (e.g. mental health, addiction) system has serious problems. It is dominated by the medical model and a focus on pathology, deficits and symptom management.
Many people who are experiencing emotional distress are told they have a disease of the brain and must be treated by drugs. Labels (which often result in the person becoming stigmatised) and drug treatments predominate in this system, a system driven by the needs of the drug industry and biological psychiatry, rather than the needs of the person.
Much of these systems pay scant attention to a person’s life experiences that actually underlie their psychological distress. They ignore key principles that are known to facilitate recovery and healing. And when people don’t get well they are put on a new drug or blamed (or both). No wonder outcomes, even for non-Indigenous people, are so poor in these systems.
The humane and holistic view of Indigenous health incorporates the physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, social and environmental. This view, which has been in existence for tens of thousands of years, is far richer than the western view of mental health.
The indigenous view focuses on ‘wellness’ rather than ‘illness’, ‘social and emotional wellbeing’ rather than ‘mental health’, ‘balance and harmony’ rather than ‘restoration of function only’, ‘strengths and assets’ rather than ‘weaknesses and deficits’, and a ‘collective’ rather than ‘individualistic’ approach.
Importantly, western-based scientific research is only just now recognising the key importance of factors like ‘relationships’, ‘community’, ‘self-determination’ and ‘Stories’ in underlying healing and recovery, factors that Indigenous cultures have known to be important for many thousands of years.
And as leading trauma expert Bruce Perry states: “Examination of the known beliefs, rituals, and healing practices for loss and trauma that remain from Aboriginal cultures reveal some remarkable principles. Healing rituals from a wide range of geographically separate, culturally disconnected groups converge into a set of core elements related to adaption and healing following trauma…
These practices emerged because they worked. People felt better and functioned better, and the core elements of the healing process were reinforced and passed on.”