“The psychological impact of the experiences of dispossession, denigration and degradation are beyond description. They strike at the very core of our sense of being and identity… throughout Aboriginal society in this country are seen what can only be described by anyone’s measure as dysfunctional families and communities, whose relationships with each other are very often marked by anger, depression and despair, dissension and divisiveness.
The effects are generational…
I recognised all the things that had happened to me through my grandparents, and their parents; their brothers and sisters who I had known as a child; through my mother and her siblings; through my cousins and my siblings. I recognized the things that happened to the thousands of other Aboriginal families like our family, and I marvelled that we weren’t all stark, raving mad.” The Hon Pat O’Shane
Indigenous peoples of Australia and other colonised nations, including Canada, USA and New Zealand, suffer significant physical and mental health morbidity, as well as shortened life expectancy. These problems, which have arisen as a result of multitude of factors, occur despite the fact that indigenous peoples have shown great cultural strength and resiliency in facing considerable adversity.
Historical, or intergenerational, trauma amongst Indigenous peoples is the trauma that has arisen as a result of the historical experiences of colonisation (and associated violence and control), forcible removal of children, loss of culture, and loss of land. As it was not addressed at the time, this trauma (and associated grief) have been passed down unwittingly through the generations by peoples’ behaviours and thought patterns.
This trauma is exacerbated by economic and social disadvantage, racism and paternalism, and ongoing grief resulting from multiple bereavements. Other issues that impact negatively on Indigenous health and wellbeing today include the closure of remote Indigenous communities, removal of Indigenous peoples from their homelands, and the destruction of Indigenous sacred sites.
Expressions of this historical trauma can be seen in:
- adults who feel inadequate in their day-to-day functioning, and have become disconnected from their family, community, country and culture;
- the poor physical and psychological health and much lower life expectancy;
- the escalation in addiction to alcohol and other substances which are used as a coping mechanism;
- the increase in domestic violence and sexual abuse across generations;
- the self-harm, suicide and risk-taking that occurs when people can find no meaning to their existence and have no sense of purpose for their day-to-day activities.
In society today, much of our health care, social welfare and criminal justice systems do not address the core issue of trauma amongst Indigenous people. Rather, they attempt to just manage the symptoms, e.g. by prescribing medications or incarcerating people, both of which often worsen the problem.
This ‘band-aid’ approach has fostered a climate of fear and control, disempowerment, hopelessness and powerlessness, and shame and blame. These factors perpetuate psychological problems, and place barriers in the way of healing.
In Australia, at least, these factors have contributed to youth suicides, imprisonments and child removals amongst Indigenous people that have reached record levels at the present time. Trauma will pass on to another generation.
Self-determination and empowerment are known to be key to recovery/ healing from trauma, mental health problems and addiction. Despite this fact, 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, or how people heal from problems and get their lives back on track.
In The Elders Report into Preventing Indigenous Self-harm and Youth Suicide, Dean Gooda sums up the frustrations of Indigenous peoples in Australia: “We haven’t been funded because the Government hasn’t been listening to the people on the ground. The Government does consultations, but they go away and the bureaucracy gets a hold of those documents and when it comes back, it’s probably unrecognisable from the interview that was done on the ground.
We have always heard of policy development from the ground up, but in my 25 years working in this area with government and community, I have never seen this happen. I have never seen them take and implement what the community is asking for if it doesn’t fit into the funding guidelines. It’s lost.
So again, we end up with ideas on suicide prevention that come from Canberra and bear no resemblance to what is needed in the community and on the ground. That is a big frustration. There is funding, but the Government decides how we are going to spend it.”
Many Indigenous people access a western culture behavioural healthcare (e.g. mental health, addiction) system that many experts consider to have serious problems. Much of the system has poor outcomes, even for non-Indigenous people. It is dominated by the medical model and a focus on pathology, deficits and symptom management.
Much of the system pays scant attention to a person’s life experiences that actually underlie their psychological distress. It ignores key principles that are known to facilitate recovery and healing. The system often blames people - and/or their so-called ‘disease’ - when they don’t get better, rather than accept that the system itself may have serious shortcomings.
Society has the knowledge to heal historical trauma and its consequences. In fact, many Aboriginal people possess the necessary coping mechanisms, skills and knowledge, and they’ve been healing themselves for years in their struggle to rise above historical trauma. Successful Indigenous healing initiatives have been developed - the vast majority of these are poorly funded and/or have lost their funding - and research has demonstrated the key principles that underlie healing. Despite this knowledge, these principles are ignored by much of our care systems and services.
Information about Indigenous healing is poorly circulated. It is quite a remarkable situation that whilst governments say they spend billions of dollars trying to improve Indigenous health and wellbeing, there is such little high quality information that is well circulated about historical trauma, healing, and various other key issues. Where are the Indigenous healing stories that give Indigenous people hope and understanding?
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. All this does is disempower Indigenous people - and we’ve been doing that for over 200 years in Australia - and leads to the rest of society blaming Indigenous people for not doing better. This, in turn, creates barriers to recovery and healing.
Politicians, civil servants, treatment services and others need to take responsibility for the failures. We can move on from these failures, but we must change the way we do things. Without wishing to sound cynical, I often feel that the care systems are there to provide jobs for the workforce, rather than help the people who need help to heal and get their lives back on track. There are too many vested interests and these get in the way of people trying to change the system for the better.
It is time for a profound change. Society must address a major civil rights issue, the poor health and wellbeing of many Indigenous people. In tackling this issue, wider society will also benefit. Past experience shows that the changes that are required will not initially come from government - they must be generated at a grassroots level. Government can play a major role in helping create societal change by supporting high quality grassroots initiatives and in not trying to control the agenda in a paternalistic and interventionist manner.
Please note, that in writing this article, I have limited myself to discussing only some of the problems faced by Indigenous peoples. For example, I have not touched upon the huge issue of companies gaining access to, and destroying, Indigenous homelands, by mining.
In the next article, I consider some of the solutions to the problems outlined in this article, and describe what my colleague Michael Liu and I, along with our collaborators, are trying to do with Sharing Culture.
 In saying all of this, I am not criticising individual workers, many of whom do a great job under difficult circumstances. In fact, many workers would agree with what I say. What I am saying is that much of our care systems have ‘gone awry’ and have the wrong priorities. As a society, we are doing nowhere near as well as we could do in helping people heal from life problems.
David can be contacted at email@example.com
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>> The Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Part 3, Finding Solutions and Facilitating Healing
>> The Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Part 1, Answering a Call from the Northern Territory of Australia