• A shadow falls across a painted Aboriginal flag. Photo Jeremy Piper/Bloomberg News (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
In many languages, ‘how are you?’ is the most common greeting. The most widely accepted answer is an unassuming ‘fine, thank you’. But for many Indigenous Australians, asking and answering this question truthfully is a much harder ask.
Claudianna Blanco

8 Sep 2016 - 6:37 PM  UPDATED 8 Sep 2016 - 6:37 PM

Research conducted in Australia and internationally confirms there is a clear link between people who report being the target of racism and discrimination, and a higher risk of suffering mental health conditions, especially depression and feelings of anxiety. This is particularly concerning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who have reported experiencing some of the highest levels of racial discrimination in Australia.

Beyond Blue board member Steve Larkin told NITV News:  “Anywhere around a quarter of the population of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people report that sometime in the last 12 months have experienced some sort of racist comment directed against them. When you look more broadly at the issue of them feeling that they’ve been treated unfairly, which may be due to racism or racist remarks, around one third will say they’ve experienced that in the last 12 months.”

The Australia at 2015 report on social cohesion published by The Scanlon Foundation found that almost 60 per cent of Indigenous Australian respondents reported an experience of discrimination.

Larking says that being on the receiving end of racism, stigma and discrimination can increase the risk of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

“If we want to do the right thing by society, we have to find ways to minimize that, much like the public health groups that are tackling things like lung cancer, and encourage people to stop smoking,” she said.

“We all need to be mindful and respectful of the impact our attitudes, our feelings, our thoughts, our comments, our behaviors are having on other people. And just be aware that racism is one of those things that can lead to mental health conditions in the long run.”

This message is echoed by Rebecca Lewis, Campaign Manager for ‘R U OK Day?’, a national day of action aiming to empower Australians to connect with people meaningfully, and support anyone struggling with life. This year’s R U OK? Day is calling on all Australians to reconnect with someone they’ve lost touch with.

“The conversations we’re trying to promote are amongst family and friends.  There is such a strong sense of community across Indigenous Australia, so it’s about how do we build to maintain that. All too often life gets us down or history reverberates for us and causes some issues,” Lewis says.

“The conversation, starting with the question ‘R U OK?’ gives us an opportunity to open up and share what we’re going through. It’s not about fixing that problem or trying to diminish it, or dismiss it in any respect. It’s about listening and trying to see the world from that person’s perspective. By doing so you’re offering a sense of support and a sense of connection, which is critical to everyone’s wellbeing,” she adds.

Research shows that 24 per cent of Australians have stopped talking with four to eight loved ones, and a further 10 per cent with nine or more people. R U OK? hopes to reduce that number by opening the lid on these problems, using role models to set the example.

“We role-model the types of behaviour that we’re encouraging Australia to embrace… We’re really privileged to have the support of people like Wendell Sailor, David Liddiard, both strong Indigenous leaders and advocates in their own right. But we also look at Indigenous Australians without a public profile, to champion that message. When you see someone like you, acting out that behaviour and asking that question, R UOK?,  it makes that behaviour much more relatable, so we do look at champions, ambassadors and supporters from all walks of like to make sure our campaign resonates.”

Steven Oliver is one of this year’s R U OK Day ambassadors. He says that it’s important for Indigenous Australians to speak out about the dangers of suicide and depression. As an openly gay black man, he says it’s important to never fear sharing how you feel.

Oliver told NITV News: “Indigenous people are continuously being put down for their culture and heritage. I’m a proud black gay man, and so often it’s established that I shouldn’t be, so there’s a real sense of isolation going on. But we need to remember that we belong to something that is ancient and special… Although some mob may feel isolated, we need to remember that we have stood the test of time, so we need to also have strength in our identity.”

Suicide and depression have touched Oliver’s life in the past. As someone who has overcome depression, he believes that placing yourself in isolation is never the solution.

“I didn’t want to talk to people because I didn’t want people to worry. But over time I realised that’s it’s not up to me whether I can stop people from worrying. So I think rather than making a decision to keep yourself guarded, it’s better to talk. You need to talk, and you should talk to your friends about it.”

Oliver is currently undertaking a project to promote the joys of everything good about life and Indigenous culture. The ads are designed to encourage Indigenous youth and those at risk to be strong.

“(The project) is called ‘Our Mob’ and its basically four ads that are talking about suicide. The media is always talking about the sadness that comes out of a suicide; we focus on the sad too much, what I want to do is promote everything that is good in life that makes life worth living. I want to promote our mob, our culture and to remind something that that is something massive to fall back on so that we can be strong in heart and mind.”

R U OK’s Rebecca Lewis explains that there are three factors that are generally present in someone who wants to suicide. 

“They are a lack of connection or a lack of belonging, feeling that we’re a burden to others, and the final one is risk-taking behaviour. So, thinking about the issue of racism that certainly contributes to someone potentially feeling like they’re a burden or feeling disconnected from others. Racial slurs, discriminatory behaviour certainly does make an impact and take a toll on people”, Lewis says.

“I would encourage everyone to be mindful of their words. Language (…) has the potential to wreak havoc, destruction and heartbreak, and that includes tragically at times, racist allegations.” 

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