By Sarka Hill.
From the late 1800’s to the 1970’s, Australia’s Federal and State and Territory Governments, together with church missionaries entered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities throughout Australia, and began removing their children.
They had no idea the damage and disastrous repercussions their actions would have on Australia’s First People, who not only lost their children, but also their pride, culture and land.
Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are still waiting for broken promises, and our country is now fighting a hidden epidemic to win against racism, poverty, suicide and death.
Gold Coast Elder, Aunty Patricia Leavy, from Cunnamulla, recently told me a very important story about a tree. A tree with strong roots and a good foundation. A family tree.
The roots of this tree were established by great grandparents, who walked the earth before us and shaped the future. The trunk, grandfathers and grandmothers nurturing it through growth, to create a strong family base. The branches, parents branching out future generations. The leaves, the most important part of all. Children spreading across the land, and with them new life.
Children spread their leaves and seeds and reproduce to continue the cycle of life. This is known as harmony. When that harmony is disrupted, the life cycle alters, balance is overthrown, and the family tree weakens. Its growth disturbed, causing illness, even death.
Aunty Pat’s dreaming story is a metaphor for what the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders once had, and what was taken from them.
Because of decisions our forefathers made, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are fighting a battle to save their people, especially the younger generations from mental health issues, poverty, homelessness, suicide, depression and death.
One of Australia’s Suicide Prevention researchers, Gerry Georgatos, who spends a lot of time among these Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rural communities, said they’re experiencing higher rates of depression, mental health issues and suicide because of poor living conditions and low educational standards.
“75% of all suicides as a general rule are believed to have been linked to poverty, so suicide is much more pronounced within extreme poverty,” Mr Georgatos said.
“The more extreme, the more acute, the more chronic the poverty is, the more likelihood that there’s a narrative of higher stats.”
Elder Aunty Pat, said poor housing situations and poor educational standards haven’t improved much since the great depression.
“Nothing really has changed since my grandmother’s time, when she had her children taken off her,” Aunty Pat said.
“The education standard for our people has not changed, the housing has not changed, we haven’t broken the cycle and they’re still taking our children, our children are still suffering and they’re still not educated because some of them still can’t read or write and sometimes feel a sense of hopelessness.”
Western Australia’s Assistant Director of Intergovernmental Relations for the Mental Health Commission, Mr Wynne James, said Aboriginal teenagers are at the highest risk when it comes to attempting suicide.
“Suicide for anyone is a tragedy and there’s no getting away from that, but we are also aware that suicide affects certain groups in our society more than it affects other groups and young Aboriginal people age 15 to 19, with both males and females being in a very high risk group,” Mr James said.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are at a higher risk of suicide than the rest of the population, with 2.5 times more risk for males, and 3.4 times for females.
Mr Georgatos, said although national trends are a general guide to follow, we need to disaggregate the statistics, down to regions and in some cases to communities, to reveal the true numbers – which are currently at a much higher and alarming rate.
“In regions such as the Kimberley, it’s extraordinarily and shockingly high,” Georgatos said.
“Guyana’s suicide rate is 44 per 100,000, but if we disaggregate to the Kimberley, it’s 36 per 100,000. But if we go even further and disaggregate to just the First Peoples in the Kimberley area, where they make up nearly half the population of region, then we find that they’ve got a higher rate than Guyana, and therefore the highest suicide rate in the world.”
Griffith University Professor and Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention Director, Professor Diego De Leo, said Australia needs to lift the stigma surrounding certain groups when it comes to suicide and mental health treatment, otherwise they don’t trust anyone to help them.
“There are several different factors to consider, which are embedded to life experiences, embedded to diseases, conditions, embedded to the stigma that surrounds the circumstances,” Professor De Leo said.
“If you stigmatize mental disorder and alcohol abuse, then you don’t seek help. We need to work a lot around stigma to lessen its impact and to favour better support for people in need.”
Mr James said it’s not only the stigma surrounding mental health within Aboriginal communities that is the problem, it is also that these communities lack the proper help.
“The engagement of Aboriginal people with mental health services has traditionally been fraught with challenges and there are a number of reasons why that occurs,” James said.
“Geographical isolation, lack of culturally appropriate services, lack of indigenous staff within available services, limited training of mental health service staff regarding Aboriginal issues, and stigma and stereotyping have all contributed to the limited use of mental health services by Aboriginal people.”
Mr Georgatos said education is one of the keys within these communities if anything is going to change, and providing quality educators is very important, but what we must not forget, is that the communities need to be free to first relearn their own culture, before they can move on.
“They’re very important, but not in the way that they become an impost, and where they do become an impost, they offend the psyche of people who are still contemporary in their own normative, in their own understandings of their historical contemporary identity,” Georgatos said.
“Then identity becomes a liability to them and it’s what holds them back in that they’re not allowed to live as if they are their own people and determine their own destiny, rather than have it determined for them.”
Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Sydney and Vice President of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Public Health Association of Australia, Ms Vanessa Lee, said with the Government’s new plan to develop Northern Australia, the ramifications could further widen the gap Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organizations have been fighting so hard to close among these rural communities.
“Our current Government is putting out a Green Paper called ‘The New Frontier’ which includes Western Australia, Northern Territory and Northern Queensland, and they’re talking about the economic viability of the new frontier,” Lee said.
“What that translates to, is mining, taking of land, and when you start removing people from their land, then you can’t close the gap because you’re once again denying people their human rights.”
Aunty Pat, said communities need home bases, where a sense of belonging can be achieved, and children educated in the old ways to provide a path to the future where the loss their ancestor’s suffered can be replaced with traditional culture.
“We need to have a place where we can deal with a holistic approach of taking a family on a property and do the healing process,” Aunty Pat said.
“It will not take three months or six months, it could take a whole year and on this property we should have trained qualified people who will deal with the children and have some form of a mini school for the children to learn how to read and write the old way.”
Ms Vanessa Lee, said it’s crucial for our government and our country to try to understand how the land is important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
“I don’t think people understand the whole importance of land to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it’s not just land rights, it’s a sense of spirituality,” Lee said.
“Everything comes from the earth and goes back to the earth, and that’s where you’ve got the Dreaming happening.”
Mr James said there’s evidence that what these organizations are doing out there is helping and making a difference, but they need continual support.
“Improvements are occurring, new service delivery models such as the Statewide Specialist Aboriginal Mental Health Service are helping change perceptions of the role of ‘mental health’ in the lives of Aboriginal people, as well as their engagement with services and service responsiveness to them,” James said.
Aunty Pat, said knowledge, education and their own culture within these communities is everything. It’s what her father taught her, and is what holds the key to succeeding in the fight against racism, poverty, suicide and mental health issues among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rural communities.
“My father’s words were, the door that my children open, and the door that they need to go through is education,” she said.