Indigenous Australians have over 200 years of trauma compounded throughout the generations, making it both unsurprising and devastating that we have a mental health crisis in Aboriginal communities throughout the country. Children as young as 10-years-old are committing suicide, highlighting a national crisis that needs far more attention than it is getting from the political power brokers.
The mental health issues facing Indigenous communities are vast and the most recent figures compiled by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project reveal the rate of Aboriginal suicide in the Kimberley is as high as 70 deaths per 100,000 people - more than six times the national rate. Figures demonstrating the rate of Aboriginal suicide in Australia is one in every 24 deaths, with clusters of communities being greatly affected and evidently, desperately need help.
In the midst of this crisis, the government states that the Fifth National Mental Health Plan (Fifth Plan) is currently being developed by the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council (AHMAC) Mental Health Drug and Alcohol Principal Committee (MHDAPC). It says, ‘The Fifth Plan articulates nationally agreed priority areas and actions for the next five years to achieve an integrated mental health system. The Fifth Plan will build on the foundation established by four previous National Mental Health Plans, existing state and territory mental health and suicide prevention plans, and national health and mental health reform efforts.’
Of course, anything less than having a targeted policy for Indigenous communities lead by community members with mental health experts is – frankly – inadequate, and the crisis affecting Indigenous communities is, by and large, contributed to by successive governmental policies end up disenfranchising, demoralising and creating a cycle of poverty without any real hope for change.
Those grappling with the effects of mental health issues find themselves isolated because for a community of people in crisis, and Australia simply does not have enough psychologists that are Indigenous or trained properly to assist Indigenous people and the unique trauma that Aboriginal people deal with.
Therefore, there needs to be more Indigenous psychologists to provide that cultural lens and a social understanding. When Aboriginal people need to talk, they usually request an Aboriginal person to talk to because they find it easier to relate to someone of their own culture.
When Aboriginal people need to talk, they usually request an Aboriginal person to talk to because they find it easier to relate to someone of their own culture.
The Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA) currently has 35 members and has identified that mental health issues have been acknowledged as one of the leading causes of the Indigenous health gap (18 per cent - second only to cardiac disease). When combined with intentional and unintentional injuries (13 per cent) the two issues account for almost one third (31 per cent) of the total health gap. Nearly one third of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population report high levels of psychological distress - 2.5 times the rate of others.
AIPA states that the misfit between Indigenous concepts of social and emotional wellbeing and mainstream concepts of mental health has been well documented and despite repeated calls for delivery of mental health services within a framework of Indigenous concepts of social and emotional wellbeing, there has been an absence of system-wide strategies to support the non-Indigenous mental health workforce to develop the cultural competence required to do this.
Wiradjuri man and Wagga Wagga Citizen of the Year for 2016, Joe Williams is raising awareness of mental health issues with his program, ‘The Enemy Within’ which travels nationally and internationally to address the mental health crisis – particularly in Indigenous communities and with a particular focus on youth.
Having grappled with depression, drug use, racism and coming all too close to death – Joe set out to do something about it. He says, “professionals do a great job that are needed, but when it comes to our mob, unless you are one of our mob and have that lived experience – we won’t connect. The reason mob connect with me is because I know the pain, I’ve walked the walk and I’ve seen and experienced both the overt and institutionalised racism that is directed at us and feel the impact of that.”
"Professionals do a great job that are needed, but when it comes to our mob, unless you are one of our mob and have that lived experience – we won’t connect."
Whilst Joe says that there is a need for more mental health workers, he says “mob who are looking for help won’t listen to or connect with someone who has learnt psychology from a book. Harsh reality - but because our mob have been lied to and pillaged, we just don’t trust in those vulnerable times, particularly if the help is coming from someone that is non-Indigenous.”
Joe advocates for more Indigenous psychologists and mental health workers but knows that the funding and governmental response always lags well behind community need which is why he set out to make a difference in his own way and has had tremendous success in connecting with and reaching youth – particularly Indigenous youth to help them see there are futures in front of them.
We may be waiting for adequate resourcing for community driven mental health programs, but our people are taking action out in communities trying to make a difference - because we know the national crisis, we live the national crisis.
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If you or anyone you know is at risk of suicide, please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or free 24-hour professional support at Australia’s Suicide Line on 1300 651 251.