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The Historical Context of Indigenous Australians' Mental Health and Well-Being

It is estimated that Indigenous people had lived in what was to become known as Australia for between 40,000 and 60,000 years prior to European colonisation. During this time, there were more than 250 different language groups, reflecting a diversity of cultures across the continent. The peoples of this land suffered from few diseases compared with Europeans. While Europeans had to contend with health problems such as smallpox, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, venereal syphilis, and gonorrhoea, these were unknown to Indigenous Australians (Macrae et al. 2013). Also, Indigenous Australians had a sophisticated system of land management to the extent that wildlife and plant foods were generally plentiful throughout the year and the landscape had a park—or estate—like quality to it (Gammage 2011).[1]

After European contact, introduced diseases were a major cause of death for Indigenous people, and conflicts stemming from the European occupation of Indigenous homelands made substantial contributions to Indigenous mortality (Macrae et al. 2013; Reynolds 2013). Before colonisation, Indigenous people were free to determine for themselves the ways in which their lives would unfold. Once Europeans began to spread across the country, however, Indigenous people’s capacity for healthy living was compromised through the disruption of relationships, the dispossession of land, the elimination of traditional foods, and a general devaluing of cultures (Macrae et al. 2013). The general loss of autonomy initiated a cycle of dispossession, demoralisation, and poor health that has continued to the present day (Macrae et al. 2013). The phenomenon has been dubbed ‘historic’ (Duran and Duran 2005) or ‘collective’ trauma (Atkinson 1997; Krieg 2009), although Kirmayer and colleagues have cautioned against a presumption of any automaticity of simple intergenerational transmission, arguing that contemporary ‘structural violence’ must be factored in—and may possibly be more corrosive of Indigenous well-being (Kirmayer et al. 2014, p. 313). The maintenance, or re-vitalisation, of culture has been connected to resilience in the face of colonisation’s destructive effect on well-being (Kirmayer et al. 2003). Resilience, however, may be undermined by the widespread erosion of the opportunity to conduct everyday Indigenous lives framed within Indigenous cultures. Most Indigenous Australian languages, for example, have already vanished, and it has been estimated that these languages are dying at the rate of one or more per year (Nettle and Romaine 2000).

The effects of colonisation on well-being are profound. Awareness of Indigenous Australians’ lack of resistance to disease at colonisation is widely known; however, the widespread and long-lasting occurrence of violent frontier conflict is much less recognised. The historian Henry Reynolds now terms it the ‘Forgotten War’ (Reynolds 2013). Apart from such direct impacts of colonial expansion (and the resultant depopulation and trans-generational trauma), the imposition of colonial authority—delivered through both formal policies and widespread informal practices, jointly dubbed ‘Clayton’s apartheid’[2] (McDermott 2004)—has contributed powerfully, though less obviously, to contemporary Indigenous mental distress (Commonwealth of Australia 1997; McDermott et al. 2008). Particularly pertinent was the emergence of a suite of mechanisms fostering widespread, sustained practices of forcible child removal—most commonly referred to, in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian parlance, as the ‘stolen generations’. By the late nineteenth century, the population of Australian people who were solely of Indigenous descent was declining, yet that of Indigenous Australians with also European, Afghan, Chinese, or other ancestry was increasing (Commonwealth of Australia 1997). Government officials reasoned that if Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and sent away from their communities to live in group homes, or work for non-Indigenous people, then, over time, the mixed-descent population would ‘merge’ with the non-Indigenous population (Commonwealth of Australia 1997). ‘Merging’ eventually became ‘assimilation’, with the introduction of legislation under the pretext of child welfare.

It is estimated that, from 1910 to 1970, between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities (Commonwealth of Australia 1997). The effects of these removal practices cannot be overstated. Removal affected the removed children, as well as parents, siblings, family groups, and communities. The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families (often referred to as the Bringing Them Home Report) was told repeatedly about the damage to children who were removed, and the effects on subsequent generations whose parents and grandparents were forcibly removed, who had their Indigeneity demeaned, and who were often otherwise traumatised and abused (Commonwealth of Australia 1997).

The importance of attending to the potential role that trauma plays in the emergence of complex mental health problems has been highlighted. For example, Morrison et al. (2005) highlighted the association between trauma and psychosis. Internationally, moves for a fresh focus on the role of trauma in mental health and well-being have paralleled by those arising from research with Indigenous Australians (Atkinson 2002). This has in turn led to calls for trauma-informed services, offering trauma-specific care, at least for Indigenous Australian children (Atkinson 2013). Given this emphasis, the population- level ‘trauma history’ undertaken in this chapter offers a way to better comprehend a number of historically generated social determinants of Indigenous Australian mental health, as well as how they might interact with a range of contemporary determinants. We posit that, in the Indigenous Australian context, the deliberative manner, widespread scale, and trans-generational impact of forcible child removal requires consideration, and response, as a social determinant in its own right. In recognition of the complex interaction of the past and the present, one of this chapter’s authors (DRMcD) has proposed a schema (see Fig. 27.1, below) to facilitate comprehension of the dynamic constitution of Indigenous mental distress, which can be seen as:

Interacting dimensions of Indigenous Australian mental health and well-being

Fig. 27.1 Interacting dimensions of Indigenous Australian mental health and well-being

[a] core of colonisation-related factors, surrounded by a range of contemporary determinants, all mediated by a variable exposure to trans-generational trauma. Racism, thus [for example], may oxygenate ‘historic’ or ‘collective’ trauma. (McDermott 2008, p. 22)

Figure 27.1 depicts individual Indigenous mental health as ‘nested’ within wider Indigenous community well-being. Contemporary social determinants have impact at both an individual and community level, as do the contemporary consequences of colonisation-related factors at the ‘core’ of the schema. After Krieg’s (2009) and Atkinson’s (1997) extension of the notion of ‘collective’ trauma to the Indigenous Australian context, the model also allows that the sequelae of such trauma, while operating at the community level, also flow back to the individual person. As Krieg notes, drawing on an earlier application of the notion to communities’ post-natural disaster:

Collective trauma allows us to acknowledge traumatized communities as something more than assemblies of traumatized persons and it can do so without unduly pathologizing feelings, behaviours or individuals. (Krieg 2009 p. S30)

  • [1] The term ‘estate’ should not imply European notions of land sequestration for the benefit of the fortunate few. It, rather, conveys the alternative reading of ‘well-managed land’, which was worked to providethe resources needed by the whole group through such means as: ‘fire-stick farming’; sustainable, strictly-seasonal food-gathering; and intricate riverbed fish traps. Incoming colonial authorities did not recognisesuch unfamiliar ‘management’—an important precursor to dispossession and the legal fiction of TerraNullius: ‘land belonging to no one’.
  • [2] ‘Clayton’s’ (‘virtual’ or ‘de facto’) apartheid takes its cue from ironic Australian vernacular usage of thenon-alcoholic, scotch lookalike, Clayton’s (Kola) Tonic. The long-running advertising catchphrase was:‘The drink you’re having when you’re not having a drink’.
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