NAIDOC Week - Because of her, we can: our Managing Director Katina Law, who is a board member of Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation, wrote the following opinion piece for The Australian on the role Aboriginal women play in securing improvements to the health and wellbeing of their communities.
The theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week — “Because of her, we can” — celebrates the enormous contributions made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to our immediate and wider communities.
Over the years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have been at the forefront of campaigns to secure improvements to the health and wellbeing of our community.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the first line of response in the event of trauma. If a violent or distressing incident occurs, such as a suicide, it is often the women who respond first, particularly in regional and remote communities. The burden we carry is underscored by the disturbing national statistics:
• Our life expectancy is 9.5 years less than that of other Australian women, and two thirds of these deaths are due to heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes.
• The suicide rate among our women is highest in the 20 to 24 age group (21.8 deaths per 100,000), making it five times higher than for non-indigenous women.
• In 2014-15, we were 32 times as likely to be hospitalised due to family violence as non-indigenous women. The statistics and anecdotal evidence for the health and wellbeing of our young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are equally startling:
• From 2012 to 2016, suicide was the leading cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people aged between 15 and 34, and the second leading cause for those aged between 35 and 44.
• Between 2012 and 2016, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people aged between five and 17 accounted for more than a quarter of all suicide deaths in this age group (90 of the 337 deaths, or 26.7 per cent).
Indigenous people in Australia suffer from intergenerational trauma left over from past policies and events. We are all wounded in our hearts from the past.
There is constant death in our communities, people going to jail, and alcohol and drug issues. By the time many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 12 years old, they will have experienced more trauma than a non- indigenous child in their lifetime.
And yet their access to mental health services is considerably lower than that for non-indigenous youth.
Twenty per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in rural areas, with 49 per cent of that figure living in the Northern Territory. And it is in these areas particularly where there is also a lack of counselling, medical and psychiatric services. People have to travel a long way from their homes to access the services they need, and many simply do not have transport options.
Language is also a huge barrier. In many remote communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, English is a second language. More than half of the Indigenous people in the Northern Territory speak an Australian indigenous language, followed by 13 per cent living in Western Australia. There can also be a sense of shame in seeking support and a deep-seated suspicion of medicalised services.
There is huge demand for bespoke mental health support to meet the particular needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people. A one-size-fits-all policy does not work.
I don’t profess to have all the answers but I believe it has to start with authentic community engagement. My belief in this is what brought me to the board of Headspace to advocate for better mental health services for all young people.
Headspace has successfully attracted young people from marginalised and at-risk groups.
In 2016-17, 6351 young people who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visited a Headspace centre. This figure is testament to the culturally appropriate service it delivers. In addition, the foundation runs a targeted Yarn Safe campaign to encourage help-seeking from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.
We need flexible approaches to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people can access mental health support. One example is a collaborative outreach service we’re trialling in the remote Pilbara, with a strong component tailored to young indigenous people. Instead of young people coming to us, Headspace workers operate across the region, embedded in high schools and youth centres, while also making home visits to families and elders to help young relatives. This kind of innovative, collaborative approach is an excellent model.
Headspace has also had success establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth mental health traineeship program which provides our young people with education and employment opportunities. Among its many positive outcomes, the program has expanded the indigenous mental health workforce in remote areas and is continuing the conversation around mental health within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
We can always do more and the key to moving forward is continued, improved collaboration. We need to talk more with each other and work together. This is the best course to achieving optimum mental health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.
Certified practising accountant Katina Law is an entrepreneur and leader in the mining sector, a board member of Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation, and a member of Western Australia’s Worora and Walmajarri families.