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Addressing the mental health and wellbeing of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community

As part of NAIDOC Week 2018, headspace National Board member Katina Law highlights the importance of bespoke mental health support for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This year’s NAIDOC Week theme: “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 almost 10 (9.5) years less than other Australian women, and two-thirds of these deaths is 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 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 was 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 to 17 years accounted for more than a quarter of all suicide deaths in this age group (90 of the 337 deaths, 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, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people’s access to mental health services is considerably lower than that of 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 crucially 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.

Katina Law

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 (60 per cent) of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 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.

Clearly, there is huge demand for bespoke mental health support to meet the unique needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people. The 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 and liaison. My belief in this is what brought me to the headspace Board; 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, 6,351 young people who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visited a headspace centre. This figure is testament to theunique culturally appropriate service delivered by headspace. In addition, headspace 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. An example of this includes a collaborative headspace outreach service we’re trialling in the remote Pilbara, with a strong component tailored to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people. Instead of young people coming to us, headspace workers operate across the region, they are embedded in high schools and youth centres and they can make home visits to families and elders to help their young relatives.

This kind of innovative and collaborative approach is an excellent model and in my view what we want to see more of. 

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 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 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 moving forward is continued and improved community 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.