An open-hearted ‘Yes’
There are few forces more fundamental to human flourishing than belonging. The feeling of acceptance that comes from deep bonds of connection can be psychologically protective – an anchor steadying the ship.
First Nations peoples are the oldest continuing culture on Earth, custodians of these lands for more than 65,000 years. Today, we have an opportunity to recognise that by writing the next chapter in our nation’s story. Together, we can take a step towards a more truthful, just and reconciled Australia, one in which inclusion, fairness and respect are central tenets of our nationhood.
I’m confident this is the future most Australians want to see. But to get there we must openly acknowledge the fullness of our history and how it reverberates through the generations.
There have been claims made in this referendum that while terrible things happened during the early days of British settlement, racism, discrimination, exclusion and disadvantage are remnants of the past.
Sadly, this is simply not the case. The mental health outcomes for First Nations peoples are a stark reminder that there is still much work to do. They are nearly three times more likely to be psychologically distressed than other Australians, and twice as likely to die by suicide.
These statistics are shocking and unacceptable, and we cannot ignore the roots of this pain, which reach back into our shared history.
Exclusion and racism negatively affect mental health and entrench disadvantage. We have seen the Voice debate over the past few months expose an ugly underbelly in our public discourse, which will only have added to the discrimination and sense of fatigue, loss and grief many First Nations peoples live with daily.
While we can’t change the past, we must heed its lessons, so we don’t continue the cycle of harm. The Voice is our chance to measurably improve the prospects of First Peoples, who for too long have had their lives debated without their involvement.
Let’s think hypothetically about an Indigenous woman born the same year as me, in 1961. We may have grown up in the same country, but we did not have equal access to the essential foundations of a healthy and happy life.
She would have been at risk of being a member the Stolen Generations, along with an estimated 100,000 children across Australia who were removed from family and placed in institutions or with strangers. Overwhelmingly this was done not on child welfare grounds but simply because of race – a government policy that did not end until 1969.
The impacts of that distressing period are still being felt today, passed on to the children and grandchildren of Stolen Generations survivors through intergenerational trauma.
Even if she hadn’t been removed from her family, as an Indigenous woman she would have faced significant barriers to education and employment, and discrimination would have placed her at greater risk of developing depression, anxiety and substance abuse. The trauma and psychological pain may have led to thoughts of suicide or attempts to take her life.
Research shows that four out of five First Nations people over the age of 15 regularly experience racism, and we know psychological distress increases with the volume of racism endured. That led Beyond Blue, in 2014, to develop the Invisible Discriminator campaign to highlight the terrible impact of even subtle racism on the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Discrimination is also a significant barrier to accessing healthcare. Indigenous Australians often delay seeking treatment from mainstream health services until much later in an illness, leave hospital early, or don’t attend at all, due to past negative experiences that they or a loved one may have experienced.
These are not problems of the distant past. They are problems of today, and if we continue to accept the status quo, nothing will change.
A Voice to Parliament won’t solve these issues overnight, but it will be an important start and will offer something that we know is a strong protective factor for mental health: self-determination.
As the national initiative addressing depression and anxiety, Beyond Blue is guided by evidence. The research clearly shows social and emotional wellbeing is strengthened when First Nations peoples have a say in the policies that affect their lives and the services that target them.
The National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing, published by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2017, says Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing should always guide policies and practice.
In mental health, the earlier we intervene, the better the chance of recovery, as problems are addressed before they become more serious and costly to treat. We also know that drawing on the rich insights of people’s real experiences improves the support people receive.
Giving Indigenous Australians a say in how culturally appropriate support is designed and delivered will lead to better outcomes for individuals, families and communities and take pressure off an overloaded mental health system.
It takes nothing from non-Indigenous Australians, and it benefits all of us.
More than 120 health organisations have backed a Voice to Parliament, including Beyond Blue, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, the Australian Medical Association, Mental Health Australia and the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association. As organisations connected to service delivery and research, we share a conviction that it will help address health inequities by providing decision-makers with advice from those directly affected by policies and laws.
It’s been more than 15 years since the nation set out six targets to close the gaps in outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Some targets are improving but in other areas progress has slowed, and in some the gap is getting bigger.
We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done. Targets and funding mean little if Indigenous Australians don’t have a seat at the table.
For several years, I chaired the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), an international aid agency working on school education in developing countries. There was a phrase I often heard when visiting communities: “Nothing about us without us.” This is a phrase used by the mental health lived-experience movement too.
In the GPE context, it was shorthand for saying they were heartily sick of people flying out of Washington, London, Brussels or Canberra, landing in their country for 24 or 48 hours and then flying back, insisting they were experts who had all the answers.
Inevitably those solutions didn’t work, because they weren’t customised to the location, the landscape, the weather, the people, the culture, the language, the way things worked on the ground.
We must recognise the strength of First Nations peoples and their cultural wisdom in guiding efforts to tackle the systemic inequality they face. Programs and services that are not designed, governed and delivered with and by First Nations organisations and communities struggle to be culturally safe and generally don’t work.
I’ve seen firsthand how strong Indigenous leaders in local communities can change life for the better for their people, informed by knowledge passed down from generation to generation.
And that is what the Voice will do. It’s about listening to more than 80 per cent of Indigenous Australians, who are saying if you want to get this right and truly close the gap, give us a mechanism to have our voices heard.
Australia’s Constitution is both a living document and a product of the prejudices and predispositions of its time.
Enshrining a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution is more than just a symbolic recognition of First Nations peoples as the First Australians. It would go some way to addressing institutionalised prejudice and in turn improve social and emotional wellbeing.
Things of the spirit can matter in the most practical of ways. When people have a say over their own destiny, they feel more empowered. They have hope. And hope breeds change.
As Cobble Cobble woman and one of the architects of the Uluru Statement from the Heart Professor Megan Davis said, the Voice offers our nation vision, unity, solutions and belonging.
It speaks to who we want to be as a country, now and in the decades to come, setting out our collective promise to walk forward together in a spirit of healing and reconciliation, and build a country that everyone feels proud to call home.
History beckons. We must answer that call with an open heart and say “Yes”.
However you vote, whatever your views, Beyond Blue offers immediate and free support to anyone in Australia at beyondblue.org.au or 1300 22 4636. For crisis support from a First Nations counsellor, call 13YARN (13 92 76).
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "An open-hearted ‘Yes’".
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