Standing on a shed in suburban Newcastle, lowering a noose over his neck at the age of 27, Brian Dowd went to that dark place so many people never come back from.
Just as Brian was about to pull that noose tight, his mother called his phone. That phone call would save his life.
As he explains it years later: “At 27 I was probably too young to leave this world. I'm just so glad the ancestors dealt me a really strong card that day, and protected me and kept me safe that day, and I've been trying to repay the favour ever since.”
In Brian Dowd’s case repaying the favour meant taking a course that would involve him evolving from a man suffering deep trauma, to a man now saving lives as a Cultural Healer.
On the day we met him, Brian Dowd was in a building in the south of the city of Sydney conducting workshops.
'The People's Mechanic' - as he is now known - started his 18-month Men’s Healing Program in 2003. The program is free of government funding and draws on energy and universal knowledge from Brian’s elders and his personal life experiences. By the end, people may hopefully be able to deal with their health problems in the context of the culture and their life experience.
That doesn’t mean excluding modern medicine according to Brian, but understanding people’s problems in the context of their life.
“We used to go on country and do our healing, and our medicine was always out there on country so I think, you know for us, we need a space where we can actually, you know, mend the spirit before we look at the emotional support we need through that medication process and helping Aboriginal people from all corners of NSW, to get what they can't from a mainstream health service. Many of our people are refugees from western medicine who feel like they don’t belong.”
Kristie Dickson, is a classic case of the kind of person Brian wants to help. She is a Wiradjuri mother of two living on the Central Coast. She participated in Brian’s course in 2013, and says finding cultural healing programs is hard work.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing to go into your local AMS and get a prescription to a cultural healer? I think the more we are connected to culture and traditional ways, the less we will actually need big pharma.”
Medical practitioners and experts have long discussed the need for a holistic approach to health. However, mental health statistics for Indigenous Australians are some of the worst in the world. But it’s not only diagnosed mental health issues that affect our social and emotional wellbeing, it’s also the everyday challenges we face.
According to the ABS' Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey for 2012/13, the biggest stressors for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were death; of a family member or close friend (37 percent), followed by serious illness (23 percent), inability to get a job (23 percent), alcohol or drug related problems (18 percent); and mental illness (16 percent).
Stress for ‘trouble with the police’ and ‘gambling problems’ were five times more likely than non-Indigenous people.
In Brian’s workshops the mob has a safe place where they can expose their inner fears and often painful history.
“Unfortunately I've had people come into my room at the same stage I was at the age 27, not wanting to be around anymore…you know I've had instances where people come and do my three-day events and when they leave they shake my hand and give me a cuddle and they put something in my hand and they say don't read that til you go home. Then I find that little piece of paper, and I open it up and it's a suicide note from that participant to their husband and to their children saying that they can't be here anymore.”
After three days of being challenged, being painfully honest and re-igniting the cultural fire that lives inside of our people, there's a sense of healing and a renewed spiritual connection.
“If we want to be a great footballer then we go down to the oval and kick that football around til we are tired….but if we want to be a great person emotionally and mentally, a lot of people are finding they don't have that space to go to because sometimes mum and dad don't have the tools, cousins don't have the tools, nan and pop don't haven't got it or aunty and uncle haven't got it, they've got a lot of advice, but they haven't got the right thing for that person to take that next step forward, and we need to set up these emotional well-being places so people can actually go and get what they need.”
Brian says that over the years he has seen first-hand how the returning to traditional medicines and health practices has improved the life of Indigenous Australians helping our people to live in the two worlds they face today.
“You know I for one believe that if you fix the spirit then you fix everything around you, and that's just not physically but that's the side of emotional things, and that's the connection side of things as well.”
Brian Dowd’s workshops are certainly helping the people who complete them, but you sense they are helping him too. As they say “doctor, heal thyself.”
If you need help please contact:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
Join hosts Karla Grant, Rae Johnston, Allan Clarke, Ryan Liddle and Natalie Ahmat for hard hitting news and current affairs when The Point returns weeknights at 9pm.