More Indigenous psychologists needed to address gaps in mental health

In September, the Australian Psychology Society (APS) issued a monumental apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. It was a formal acknowledgment of psychology’s role in their mistreatment, corrosion of culture and loss of identity.

“The Apology is an important move in redressing past wrongs, either acts of commission or acts of omission by our discipline and profession,” APS Professor Michael Kyrios and Director, Research School of Psychology says.

“While we had no specific evidence of active involvement in pernicious acts by our organisation, it is often stated that the sins of silence are often more impactful than actively committing wrongful acts.”

The apology was one of Kyrios’s last acts as outgoing APS President, read out in full by professor Tim Carey during the Australian Psychological Society Congress 2016 in Melbourne. “The Apology itself was very emotional and spiritual,” Kyrios reflects. “We were all moved, some to tears. It was actually a very surreal moment.”

It’s one of many initiatives by the APS to build a framework of self-determination with Indigenous psychologists and communities in order to address their mental health and wellness needs.

“Without it, no one can move on, nothing happens and we perpetuate the same dynamics which led to the current problems in the first place,” Kyrios warns.

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Bridging the gaps in education, health and wellbeing, and social opportunities for people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds are just some of the challenges at hand. From psychology’s perspective, Indigenous Australians experience much higher rates of emotional distress, chronic disease, daily stressors and incarceration than other Australians.

Without it, no one can move on, nothing happens and we perpetuate the same dynamics which led to the current problems in the first place.

Nowhere are the psychological issues more manifest than in the inflated suicide rates among these communities. An unknown concept to Aboriginal people prior to colonisation, today’s suicide rate for Aboriginal and or Torres Strait Islander People is twice as high as non-Indigenous people.

A recent report by the Australian Youth Development Index (YDI) found suicide rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men between 25 and 29 to be the highest in the world.

The apology was the initiative of Alan Rosen from the organisation, Transforming Australia’s Mental Health Service Systems. But the APS wasn’t the first Australian board that Rosen approached; in 2009 and again in 2011, Rosen had drafted a similar apology and taken it to the Mental Health Professionals’ Association of Australia (MHPA), an organisation representing the joint interests of all mental health professional bodies in Australia.

“On the basis that they had supported a general apology to Aboriginal peoples in 2008 by Kevin Rudd, MHPA considered and declined that draft twice,” Kyrios tells.

An adaptation for all indigenous communities worldwide then went to the World Psychiatric Association.

“Our Board regarded that particular apology [by Kevin Rudd] to be less relevant to our profession but we were committed to doing something meaningful in this space. We wanted to engage with our Indigenous colleagues and links with relevant communities to develop an apology that was more relevant to our profession and our values.”

Without addressing the apology, which Kyrios refers to as the “elephant in the room”, the emotional wellbeing and mental health needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People will continue to be compromised.

If we can’t get this right with our own people, what chance do we have of getting it right in other quarters, like when dealing with asylum seekers, or managing racism across the board?

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