headspace CEO Christ Tanti
We like to think that the bleak days of overt racism in Australia are long behind us. The time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were forced to live in separate areas, and weren’t even counted as people in the national census until 1967, is not so far in the past, but at least it is well and truly over.
Anyone feeling comfortable about this would probably have had their complacency shaken by an extensive survey of Indigenous Australians released last week, which revealed almost every respondent had been subjected to some kind of racism.
The survey, conducted by VicHealth, Lowitja Institute, University of Melbourne and our friends at beyondblue, showed 97 per cent had been targets of verbal or physical abuse in the past year. Seven in 10 had been targets of eight or more racist incidents during the past year.
Clearly, the days of systemic racism are not that far behind us at all. In fact, let’s be clear, they’re not entirely over.
The picture the survey paints of the relentless discrimination encountered by our Indigenous countrymen and women is extremely confronting, and also provides us with a real insight into link between racism and mental illness.
Half the respondents to the Victorian survey reported high or very high psychological distress. Unsurprisingly, those people who had experienced more incidents of racism were more likely to score highly on the Kessler scale for psychological distress.
We don’t know how many of the survey respondents were aged between 12 and 25. But we do know that the broader implications of racism and allied forms of discrimination are felt acutely among young Indigenous Australians, who often feel the direct effects and consequences of racial discrimination – in the form of intergenerational poverty, ill health, unemployment and family breakdown.
At headspace, as a unique mainstream youth mental health and wellbeing initiative, we have a responsibility to our Indigenous youth, and there is no argument that we need to do more to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and their families in our services.
We know we are at the front line of the battle to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young Indigenous people. We’re looking at innovative ways that our online and telephone counselling service eheadspace can be more accessible to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth who are not only geographically isolated but who are perhaps socially isolated in urban cities and towns (census data shows more Indigenous Australians live in Sydney than anywhere else).
Our challenge is to ensure that we are not inadvertently placing barriers to access, and that our centres develop appropriate strategies so that Indigenous youth feel comfortable turning up to one of our centres.
I do think we are making a difference as we see greater numbers of Indigenous young people access headspace services but we know we have still a way to go. But this survey shows things will only get substantially better when Indigenous Australians as a whole get some permanent respite from the corrosive impact of discrimination that, sadly, still exists in our community.