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Harnessing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as protection and strength

The strengths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices in family life and child rearing include:

A collective community focus — the concept of ‘one community, many eyes’ helps children to build trust and confidence in themselves and in others, access support when they face challenges, and be safe.

Autonomous play — the freedom to explore the world can empower children to build independence, learn responsibility and make sound decisions.

Respect for the elderly — elderly family and community members help children to learn their responsibilities, understand who they are and where they come from, and keep the spirit of Aboriginal culture alive.

Spirituality — helps children to cope with life by connecting with others, instilling positive values, such as caring and sharing, improving physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing, and providing opportunities to heal from trauma.

Source: CFCA, Strengths of Australian Aboriginal cultural practices in family life and child rearing infographic

Note

‘Healing gives us back to ourselves. Not to hide or fight anymore. But to sit still, calm our minds, listen to the universe and allow our spirits to dance on the wind … [and] drift into our dreamtime. Healing ultimately gives us back to our country. To stand once again in our rightful place, eternal and generational. Healing is not just about recovering what has been lost or repairing what has been broken. It is about embracing our life force to create a new and vibrant fabric that keeps us grounded and connected.’

Associate Professor Helen Milroy, Aboriginal Child Psychiatrist and Australia’s first Aboriginal doctor (MJA, Volume 190 Number 10, 18 May 2009)

Embracing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inner spirit model for healing

There is a word in many different language groups that describes inner spirit and many Aboriginal people share this belief.

Our Inner Spirit is the centre of our being and emotions.

When our spirit feels strong our mind feels strong.

When our spirit feels tangled our mind feels tangled.

Strong Inner Spirit is what keeps people healthy and keeps them connected together.

Strong Inner Spirit keeps our family strong, our community strong and our country alive.

Some healing ways to build strong spirit and identity may include:

  • ceremonies
  • men and women’s business and healing circles
  • stories, song, art and dance
  • going back to country and taking on responsibilities handed down for care and protection

Being culturally responsive

Practitioners do not need to be an expert in culture. They do need to understand that:

  • mental health treatment alone will not meet the spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing needs, unless it is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-specific mental health service that incorporates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of healing
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men have cultural ways of healing that can support their mental health and wellbeing
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women talk about women’s business with women, not men
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men talk about men’s business with men, not women
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities are the experts in what they need and want — be guided by them

Take action to:

  • invite a conversation about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healing ways when developing case plans
  • consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healing services to learn more about how to support men, women, young people and children in healing
  • consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues about local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healers or in other areas who can be spoken with
  • help parents and children to connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healers, healing places and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who can guide them, if this is what they want
  • learn about the local traditional sites of healing and how men and women connect with their land and country differently

Note

Our stories since colonisation have been dangerous and subversive remembrances. Even remembering our law, our dreaming stories, was a subversive practice, let alone our tales of massacres, resistance, dispossession, living on the mission and the ‘welfare’ coming to take away our children. Unlike Hollywood, we tell stories to survive, not just to entertain or sell products. We have lost some of our stories because of the brutality of colonisation but we are finding them again and learning new stories, modern stories of surviving the policies of assimilation and establishing our own organisations in law, health, education, child care and child and family services.

SNAICC (2010)

About the child

Practitioners may wish to consult with cultural practice leaders and/or cultural practice advisors about practice considerations and questions. Here are some suggestions for discussion and consideration:-

Practice consideration Practice questions

What cultural information do I need to know so I can:

talk to the child

understand the child’s relationship with their parents and other family members

understand the language that the child may use to talk about their parent’s mental health issues

know what cultural practices may help to keep the child safe and to heal

understand what the child might be scared about if they talk about their parent’s mental health issues

help the child to know who they can talk to if they are worried about their parent’s mental health issues

Does the child identify as Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or both? If not — why? If yes — what community, country and nation do they belong to or identify with?

Does the child identify safe people in their family or community?

Does the child identify people in their family or community as unsafe?

What cultural norms and beliefs should I be aware of when talking to the child?

How can I talk to the child about their parent’s mental health? What’s the best approach? What words should or shouldn’t I use?

How can I talk to the child about their worries?

How should I talk to the child about my worries?

How can I make sure I am not causing the child to feel shame?

How can I talk to the child to help them identify a safe person to talk to when they are worried about their parent’s mental health?

Note

‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have made it clear they do not want non-Aboriginal people telling them what they need. Aboriginal people want to decide and build their own destinies, but recognise this cannot be achieved in isolation.’

Aboriginal service user, Mental Health Commission

About the parents and family

Practitioners may wish to consult with cultural practice leaders and/or cultural practice advisors about practice considerations and questions. Here are some suggestions for discussion and consideration:

Practice consideration Practice questions

What cultural information do I need to know in order to:

talk to the parents and family

understand the family dynamics

understand the language the family may use to talk about mental health issues

understand the family’s relationship with the community

assess the family’s ability to keep the child safe

know what cultural practices may help to keep the child safe and to heal

know what cultural practices may help the family to heal

understand what the parent’s may be worried about if they talk to you about their experiences of mental health issues

Does this family identify as Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander or both? If not, why not?

If they do, what community and country do they belong to or identify with?

Are they related to each other by blood, marriage or community?

Does this family belong to the local community?

If not, how long have they been in this community? What brought them here?

Does this family live in an isolated location where services are difficult to access?

Does this family have regular contact or a relationship with community Elders? If so, who are they?

Does this family experience any family dynamics that may affect our worries for the child?

Does this family have links with any other welfare or support agencies (indigenous and non-indigenous)?

Who are the leaders in the family?

Who are the least powerful or least respected members of the family?

What is unique about this family?

How can I talk to the parent’s about their mental health and our worries? What’s the best approach? What words should or shouldn’t I use? How can I avoid causing shame on the family?

About community

Practitioners may wish to consult with cultural practice leaders and/or cultural practice advisors about practice considerations and questions. Here are some suggestions for discussion and consideration:-

Practice consideration Practice questions

What cultural information do I need to know in order to:

build trust with the community

understand the community’s relationship with the family

understand and harness the community’s ability to keep the child safe

assess the impact of the community on the risk to the child

understand language that may be used by the community to talk about mental health issues

How does the community respond to the family and their children?

Does this community:

understand the current child protection concerns?

demonstrate an ability or willingness to respond to child protection concerns?

function well and generally keep children safe (consider rates of problematic alcohol and other drug use, domestic and family violence, and sexual assault in the community)?

What is the best way I can talk with community Elders about mental health? What are some of the things I should or shouldn’t say? How can I avoid bringing shame on the community?

What is special or unique about the community? How can I harness the strengths of the community to build safety for this child?

What traditional cultural practices in the community might help this family to heal and recover?

 

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