How embracing culture can heal the intergenerational trauma of Indigenous youth

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Experts say we are in the midst of an Indigenous youth suicide crisis. The key to prevention could lie in a stronger cultural identity.

ABOVE VIDEO: The importance of Indigenous healers.

Growing up in a rage-filled household, Andrew Bietzel felt like violence was all he knew.

Andrew is Gubbi Gubbi and Nyigina. While he’s always known he’s Indigenous, he knew almost nothing about the specifics of his culture and struggled to embrace it as a child.

“I didn’t have a lot of Aboriginal friends. My friends in school were all white, so I never really quite fit in," he said.

Andrew’s internalised racism was made harder by the tension between his Indigenous and non-Indigenous family.

By the age of 12, Andrew was struggling with depression and anxiety. 

“I longed for any kind of escape, and suicide always felt like the answer,” Andrew said. 

When he shared his suicidal thoughts with his mother she responded with fear that if he reached out for help, he might be taken away by government authorities.

I never opened up about it again, and by the time I was 18, I’d already made my first [suicide] attempt

A national crisis

The National Indigenous Critical Response Service (NICRS) has recorded approximately 32 suicides of young Indigenous people this year alone.

Experts are urging meaningful government action on what they see as a national crisis.

According to Adele Cox, Project Director of the NICRS and Bunuba and Gija woman, like Andrew’s mother, many Indigenous parents fear that if they seek help for their children’s mental health, it will lead to them being taken away.

“You just need to look at the rates of Indigenous youth incarceration or children who are part of the system as wards of the state or in foster care situations,” Ms Cox said.

Bardi woman, Pat Dudgeon is a professor at the University of Western Australia and the Director of the Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention (CBPATSISP). 

“There are many reasons Aboriginal children don’t seek help, many don’t have access to services,” she said. 

The widely-known racism towards Indigenous people in health care system prevents people from getting the help they need.

“In order to meaningfully respond to this crisis, we need to address the deep underlying historical causes of despair and hopelessness that are ever-present in Aboriginal communities”.

Understanding mental health’s connection to culture

After spending years questioning the root of his mental illness, Andrew came to understand that like many other Indigenous Australians, his family had been impacted by the ongoing trauma of forced removals.

“I went to therapy when it got really bad. I told the therapist that I was Indigenous and she was like, ‘it's intergenerational trauma, that’s why this has happened’,” he said.

Intergenerational trauma is a form of historical trauma that is often passed down through descendants of the Stolen Generations; who were forcibly removed from their families, culture and connection.

While Andrew’s grandmother was able to hold onto stories of her ancestors, she spent most of her life not knowing who her mob was and denying she was Aboriginal to survive.

Andrew and his family only discovered they are Nyigana this year.

Seeking therapy helped Andrew make sense of his state of mind and heal the loss of identity he grappled with for so long.

You’re not in this situation because you are flawed or because you are the problem.

“You’re in this situation because of things that have happened historically and sociologically to your people and your family, that’s led to this happening.”

Moving forward

There are still many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who don’t know where their ancestral lands are or which tribe they belong too, which is deeply affecting communities.

“We live in a society who has not yet embraced and acknowledged our cultural ways of life and so there are pressures there always for young people especially to conform,” Ms Cox said.

“Now, more than ever, our research is telling us that self determination and strengthening culture is at the core of suicide prevention in Indigenous communities," Ms Dudgeon concluded.

Despite what some critics say, Andrew says working to heal the intergenerational trauma that him and so many others feel will not come at the detriment of wider Australian society.

It’s about fixing all that and undoing the removal, undoing the damage.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (up to age 25). More information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue.

Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander services available are available at NACCHO member services, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or Headspace’s Yarn Safe.