It was my great pleasure to attend this conference highlighting ways of improving the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal people through holistic approaches to mental health. Uncle Mick Adams chaired the event and Dr Richard Walley welcomed us to Noongar country.
The speakers spoke with such passion of the rich history of Australia’s First Peoples spanning at least 65,000 years - a history based on the extraordinary courage and resilience of Aboriginal people, their families and communities. Noongar culture is alive and strong, but needs to be recognised as a unique identity.
I learned about disconnection, displacement and disempowerment, about vulnerability and fear and the impact of lateral violence. Gerry Georgatos told of Aboriginal babies who lived on the street! They need to fit in not stand out. Sandy Davies spoke of the “Have’s, have nots and those who have nothing”. He also told us of the mortuary ambulance where volunteer health workers go out and pick up deceased persons so they may be buried on their land, their country, so that their spirit can rest and go free.
Josie Farrer recounted that she and her sisters were taken 300kms on a truck to the mission. She spoke of the impact of the stolen generation including spiritual homelessness, loss of identity, weakened spirits, feelings of despair, powerless, and sadness and high rates of suicide. I learned of over-crowded housing, high incarceration rates, inappropriate judgements and stereotypes about Aboriginal people.
As always, the values and virtues expressed resonated with me – listening, mutual respect, social justice, working meaningfully together, standing beside each other. It made me think of this quote by Albert Camus:
“Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”
As Non-Aboriginal people, we need to have the humility to acknowledge that we know little of the grief and trauma that Aboriginal people have endured but that we share a common humanity and must stand beside Aboriginal people in their journey.
We need to start with developing empathy – including an awareness of the ongoing legacy of trauma, grief and loss associated with colonisation. I learned that a 12-year-old Aboriginal child will have attended around 100 funerals in their short life! We need to understand the epigenetic effects of this kind of trauma.
We need to focus on holistic approaches that work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in ways that take into account the full cultural, social, physical, spiritual, emotional and economic context of Aboriginal people’s lives.
We must build capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health service professionals and actively involve them at every stage of program development, delivery and evaluation in order to build genuine, collaborative and sustainable partnerships.
We need to adopt a strengths-based perspective to collaboration. Aboriginal people have extremely high levels of emotional and social intelligence. We must value this knowledge and acknowledge their cultural beliefs and practices to promote a strong cultural identity.
My take home message was that we need to invest in our Aboriginal population and invest in their healing if we are going to address these long standing issues. It has taken seven generations to get to where we are now and it's going to take a number of generations to heal the deep intergenerational trauma – let the healing start with each of us. We can all help to ‘Close the Gap’ on complex health inequality
This conference strengthened my resolve to keep working with Aboriginal leaders to bring our Aboriginal Person Centred Care learning to you all.
TRACS WA are collaborating with the Directors of Aboriginal Health (HDWA) on a new module related to person centred care for Aboriginal people in our health systems with an expected pilot date of June, 2018.
Helen Mclean, Development Facilitator