Politics — 12 December 2012

The National Mental Health Commission has called for the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be made a national priority.

In its first annual report card it has recommended the mental health of Indigenous Australians be added as a target to the Closing the Gap program to reduce early deaths and improve well-being.

The National Mental Health Commission’s first report card includes a feature on the emotional and social well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, in a bid it says to have the Indigenous community heard.

Commission member, and chairwoman of the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association, Professor Pat Dudgeon, says the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders has long been overlooked.

“I believe that Indigenous issues have been ignored, particularly mental health. It is only recently that we have brought it to the table. There is a gap in Indigenous mental health compared to non-Indigenous mental health. For instance, even though we are only 3 per cent of the population our suicide rates are twice that of the rest of the population.”

Up to 15 per cent of the 10-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non- Indigenous Australians has been put down to mental health conditions.

In its report the Commission says governments must combat the vicious cycles of disadvantage that make mental health issues in Indigenous community’s worse.

Ms Dudgeon says mental health cannot be looked at in isolation.

“Everything is all interrelated. So if we look at health that is related to mental health, and employment, social inclusion. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still suffer racism in this country. We also have a history of colonisation that we have to deal with and reclaim our cultures. So that all compounds on the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

The Commission’s report makes ten recommendations.

Among them that the mental health and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders be included in the Council of Australian Governments’ Closing the Gap on disadvantage program as an additional target.

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has welcomed the recommendation, so too the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), which represents over 150 Aboriginal community controlled medical services across the country.

NACCHO’s chairman, Justin Mohamed, says incorporating mental health as a target in the program would help better track progress.

“We know that mental health and emotional and spiritual well being has a major impact on our communities, especially our young people. So we would welcome any form of targets or a position where the government can report back on how they are going with closing the gap, particularly in this field of mental health”

The National Mental Health Commission says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders must be at the centre of thinking and decision-making on mental health initiatives and suicide prevention.

It also advises that training and employment of Indigenous Australians in mental health services must increase.

The Chief Executive of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation, Richard Weston, says historically Aboriginal people have not had great experiences with the mental health system, so to breakdown barriers and build trust it is going to be critical to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people involved in the delivery of services.

“But we need Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are well trained and skilled, who can hold their own with other mental health professions. So we need good education and good training processes to ensure that the standard of care that we are able to provide to our people is able to meet the high level of need that is out there.”

Mental illness is experienced by nearly half (45 per cent) of the Australian adult population at some point over their lifetime.
Commission chairman Professor Allan Fels says people from all backgrounds are affected, and that in its future reports the Commission plans to focus on various vulnerable groups.

“We know that there are lots of issues, problems and system gaps and many different groups of people, such as people from culturally and linguistically  diverse backgrounds, veterans, refugees, people with intellectual disability, those living with borderline disability disorders and others face very real challenges. In the years ahead we will work on additional areas requiring a special focus such as these as separate pieces of work.”

As first appeared on sbs.com.au.


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(1) Reader Comment

  1. I work in small Aboriginal community 1000km from Darwin in Gulf Country, where the people have suffered the loss of two community members in the past month. One was a 13 year old who committed suicide while away at college and the other, a 60 year old who died from natural causes. Both funerals were held on the same day. Though there was talk by the education department of sending out mental health workers and councilors to help the grieving families, none were sent by the organisation who originally stated it would help. Apparently this was due to budget restrictions and because they couldn’t book a convenient flight. Ideally, this community (and particularly the students at the school) would receive the exact same support that those on the east coast would be offered, but it’s not the case out here.

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