Truth telling about First Nations’ Mental Health: Our Catholic Bishops and the Uluru Statement ...
Updated: Dec 23, 2021
On August 28 this year, Bishop Robert led the Toowoomba Diocesan launch of the 2020 Social Justice Statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops. Called To Live Life to the Full: Mental Health in Australia Today, this statement offers us insights into the health, social and faith concerns that surround this challenging issue. Our Bishops want us to deepen our awareness of the reality of mental ill-health in Australia and to learn to respond to those struggling with this health issue with compassion and justice.
Of special interest to me is the insightful words that the Bishops offer concerning First Nations’ mental health issues. Our Bishops remind us that the context of these issues is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are ‘over-represented in key measures of disadvantage’ (p14), and that they have a long history of dispossession. They acknowledge that this ‘history of dispossession … is the cause of intergenerational trauma’. As a way forward, the Bishops see the need for more culturally appropriate mental health services. They recognise that the Uluru Statement from the Heart offers a very real possibility of ‘bringing the values of fairness, truth and justice to Australia’s relationship with First Nations people and communities’ (p15).
Recognition of trauma in this context is a more recent insight. Psychologists began wondering how to label a range of symptoms when working with Jewish Holocaust survivors and they deepened their insights into historical trauma, collective trauma and intergenerational trauma with further research into survivors of domestic violence, war, genocide, colonisation, rape and sexual abuse.
For First Nations peoples, a significant contributor to their disproportionate levels of overall ill-health, including mental ill-health, is the ‘huge flow on effect from things that happened 200 years ago’ (Joe Williams, quoted on p14). Yet this was not a once and for all event as First Nations peoples continue to experience ongoing colonisation and are left powerless to manage and determine their own lives.
Children continue to be taken from First Nations families in disproportionate numbers a decade after Kevin Rudd’s ‘Stolen Generations’ apology. Governments continue to not fully address the findings of the 1987-91 Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody with a further 437 unnecessary Indigenous deaths since then. Sacred sites continue to be desecrated with the recent destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves by Rio Tinto. Governments continue to micro-manage Indigenous communities and their finances. We need to acknowledge that all of these ongoing actions continue to produce trauma and powerlessness.
This year’s Social Justice Statement recognises this powerlessness and calls us to step up to the ‘unfinished business of our past’ (p15). It is in the context of facing our past that the Bishops refer to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. They see value, significance and truth in this 2017 statement. After a long process of Indigenous consultation around Australia, 250 key elders and leaders gathered to formulate, and attach their signatures to, this call for a constitutionally enshrined voice to Parliament, a treaty and a process of truth telling.
Many might see the Uluru Statement from the Heart as purely a political issue. Yet in the context of Catholic Social Teaching, support of this statement is an important way we can live out our call to act justly in this land of Australia. The Bishops recognise that First Nations peoples, who have governed themselves and managed this land for millennia, have been made powerless in their own country. We, who are non-Indigenous, need to face this ongoing history with honesty and humility and support First Nations’ initiatives for much greater decision making over their own lives and over what is sacred to them.
By supporting the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the Australian Catholic Bishops are saying that colonisation and dispossession significantly impact on First Nations people’s mental well-being. Australian First Nations peoples are always going to experience disproportionally greater mental ill-health until we have the courage to confront and address the injustices of the past. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is about recovering a level of self-determination so that trauma is addressed through a holistic recovery of personal and collective power. The call for a voice, treaty and for truth-telling is about ensuring that First Nations peoples can stand respected on country and be actively part of all decisions that impact their lives.
Catholic Social Teaching asks of us to be alongside in support of those who struggle. First Nations’ mental ill-health requires action that is more than just culturally appropriate health services. It requires we attentively hear First Nations’ experiences of ongoing colonisation and take seriously First Nations’ initiatives for a holistic way forward. In this way, we hear the truth about First Nations’ mental ill-health and act in ways that will contribute to their ‘right to flourish and live life to the full’ (p15).