We need to rethink how we treat mental health in First Nations communities

Celebrating NAIDOC Week also means acknowledging all the work that’s yet to be done. A new study out of the University of Queensland calls for changes in how we treat Indigenous mental health.

It’s been reported that mental health challenges, anxiety, and substance abuse are between four and seven times more prevalent in Indigenous Australians compared to non-Indigenous Australians.

Mental health and substance use disorders were also shown to be the leading cause of ill health among First Nations people.

But current treatments aren’t working in these communities, a new study out of the University of Queensland has found, suggesting we need to extend beyond just clinical methods.

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Conducted over six months in consultation with Elders, psychologists, mental health workers, Aboriginal Medical Services (AMS) staff, and current and former users of health services, research showed that retaining culture, spiritual beliefs, autonomy, and a connection to Country would have a significantly positive impact.

“Culture and identity were found to be central towards perceptions of health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians, not just individually, but as a community,” says UQ Rural Clinical School researcher, Dr. Bushra Nasir.

“Rates of mental disorders for those residing on Country have been identified as about half of those in mainstream communities.”

Participants spoke of holistic wellbeing, with spirit and spirituality being key elements to that idea of health. When that spiritual connection was lost; taken in the colonisation of Australia, that has led to trauma and suffering that is passed on through the generations.

“Our old people wasn’t allowed to speak our language, so therefore we weren’t taught. Tell us anything about our culture and our lifestyle and our tradition,” one participant is quoted as saying in the study, “And through that we became more sicker, physically and spiritually. And that, in my opinion, that led to a lot of problems now with mental health, drugs, alcohol, physical abuse.”

The study made several recommendations as to how the treatment of mental health in Indigenous communities needs to change, including “cultural concepts of holistic social and emotional wellbeing and spiritual healing” used in combination with a clinical approach.

“Mainstream treatment models fail to incorporate the Indigenous understanding of mental health; the adaptation of mainstream services to suit Indigenous populations without consideration for cultural appropriateness and without any integration of ‘holistic’ aspects results in unsuccessful attempts at addressing health needs,” the researchers concluded.