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A new survey reveals Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Victorians have been struggling with mental health during the Coronavirus pandemic, with 80 per cent reporting high levels of psychological distress.
Keira Jenkins

31 Jul 2020 - 10:56 AM  UPDATED 31 Jul 2020 - 10:56 AM

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Victorians are suffering from high psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new survey from VicHealth.

The survey of 2000 Victorians showed 80 per cent of Indigenous Victorians have experienced high or very high psychological distress since the pandemic began, compared to 44 per cent for all Victorians.

Founder and CEO of Strong Brother Strong Sister youth mentoring program, Cormach Evans, told NITV News the figures are consistent with what he is seeing through his work with young people.

"Country and being out on Country plays such an important role in keeping us well and strong and everything else," he said.

"Not having that access to Country, whether people are living away from their home Country and their community and their kin and everything else, is such a huge thing and does have a big impact on our people, whether they're a young person or an Elder.

"I think just the impacts of not seeing your friends, your community, has a huge effect, in not the greatest way in terms of mental health and wellbeing.

"I think what we're seeing, is scary. I think it's going to be going on a lot longer with the cases rising."

'Unsteady time'

VicHealth CEO Sandro Demaio said although the sample size was small the findings do indicate very high levels of distress, particularly when compared to non-Indigenous Victorians.

“The findings from our survey suggest that the past few months have been an incredibly challenging time for all Victorians, but in particular for people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities," Dr Demaio said.

“We know that coronavirus is making it difficult for many First Nations people to connect to culture and community, while racism is creating enormous amounts of stress and anxiety. 

“It’s vital that we do more to support the mental health of Aboriginal Victorians, but we also need to stamp out racism and discrimination through tackling the individual and systemic inequalities in our community.”

The survey also found that just 46 per cent of First Nations Victorians surveyed felt socially connected during the coronavirus pandemic, down from 57 per cent before the first lockdown in February. 

Mr Evans said the second lockdown had taken its toll.

"We came through the first lockdown and there was this sense of hope when you've come out and you're hoping that's the end of it," he said.

"Then to go back into lockdown and quite quickly as well, for a lot of our community members, not having the time to prepare.

"To not be able to see their loved ones or to do the things that matter to them, which is then also really hard to do in terms of keeping our Elders safe and our young people safe.

"It's been a really unsteady time to do those things."

'Exciting & important'

But Mr Evans said it's not all bad news. Strong Brother Strong Sister has been able to reach young people through virtual workshops that they had never been able to reach in person.

"We've been able to engage young people that we wouldn't usually be able to engage in person due to a range of things that are personal to that young person, whether it be anxiety, depression and just personal journeys.

"To be able to give those young people voices and also a space to access and be comfortable to talk through things and help them feel safe, supported and also achieve their dreams is really exciting, but also really important."

The data comes as VicHealth announced new funding for five projects which support Aboriginal Victorians to  improvesocial and emotional wellbeing. 

Strong Brother Strong Sister is one of these five projects, which will receive funding.

Mr Evans said the $150,000 grant from VicHealth will help to expand its Geelong-based youth mentoring program to Maribyrnong, and to help facilitate youth groups and mentoring sessions online.

"We'll be offering weekly youth groups for Aboriginal young people aged 12-25 to catch up once a week," he said.

"We'll be offering a range of different supports - group workshops, guest speakers, there'll be a range of different activities to support young people through this time but also with life skills and health and wellbeing support.

"And we'll also have on offer one on one mentoring sessions, which will be online at the moment but once it's in safe stage and all the restrictions have lifted we'll be able to put these services in place in person as well, which is really exciting and also really important."

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