31 August 2016

Why we need more Indigenous Australians to work in mental healthcare

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Intentional self-harm among Indigenous Australians aged 15-24 is 5.2 times the rate among non-Indigenous Australians, and the suicide rate for Indigenous Australians is 2.6 times the rate for non-Indigenous Aussies, with some victims being as young as eight.

Since the 1980’s, Indigenous suicides and mental health issues have been on the rise, escalating in an increasingly worrying speed.

But this has not always been the case; in fact, suicide among Indigenous communities in pre-colonial times hardly existed.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991 found that since the colonisation, Indigenous Australians are exposed to a history of forcibly separation from families and children, as well as racism, alienation and exclusion. The Commission also found that many Indigenous Australians suffer from interconnected issues of cultural dislocation and personal trauma.

It’s been 27 years since the Royal Commission was released, and yet, Indigenous mental health is as much of an issue now as then, if not more so.

The recent broadcast of the ABC’s Four Corners, which showed the extreme torture youth are exposed to in detention centres, has again put Indigenous mental health in the spotlight, and has called for yet another Royal Commission.

With Indigenous mental health being such a nationwide issue, it would only make sense that there were resources in the Australian health services to assist the Indigenous population. However, these resources are shockingly poor.

Mental health services need to recruit more Indigenous Australians, who are better equipped to assist Indigenous patients. The services also need to better support an Indigenous workforce. They need to understand their culture and adapt the working arrangements to their individual responsibilities, providing them with further flexibility.

Mainstream mental health providers also need to train and educate their non-Indigenous staff to better understand and relate to the Indigenous culture. This is vital, especially when giving an Indigenous Australian a diagnosis. For example, in Indigenous communities mental illness may be seen as a ‘soreness of the spirit’.

In some instances, hallucination is considered part of the culture, but persistent auditory hallucinations are not as often seen as culturally based and would instead indicate a mental disorder. However, not fully understanding the Indigenous culture can lead to a patient getting the wrong diagnosis.
The key for non-Indigenous mental health workers is having a well-rounded approach and being able to consider both cultural and medical aspects to make an appropriate judgement.

If we want to have a chance to battle the increasing mental health issues in Indigenous communities, we need to start looking at the services we provide and make sure they are culturally adapted for Indigenous Australians. 

Mimmie grew up in Sweden and first came to Australia as a backpacker after high school. After travelling around the country for two years she returned to Europe and pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism in London. But the longing for Australia and the sun became too strong. After having worked for some time in the media industry, Mimmie decided to make a change and swap the news for conferences. She now gets to do what she loves the most, meeting new people and keep learning about cultures and issues while producing conferences on current topics.

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