The impacts of racism upon the health and wellbeing of children and youth will be explored at a symposium in Melbourne later this month.

Marie McInerney, who will cover the symposium for the Croakey Conference Reporting Service, reports below that the event is timely given the recent news of Federal Government support for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan.

For the first time in such a policy document, the Plan acknowledges racism as a “key social determinant of health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people” and commits to an Australian health system “free of racism and inequality”.

The symposium coordinator, Dr Naomi Priest, says racism is “a core public health issue” and a significant driver of health inequalities.


Racism and child health: looking for the pathways and interventions

Marie McInerney writes:

It’s increasingly clear that racism impacts poorly on health – from birth weight and gestation to socio-emotional wellbeing, childhood illnesses, cognitive development and metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, stroke or heart disease.

But how, where and when does it impact?

Is it a result mostly of direct racism – taunts and bullying at school or in the neighbourhood, or is structural racism, which can affect peoples’ access to healthcare and justice, the bigger issue?

Is there an inter-generational impact, where the stress of interpersonal and structural racism on a parent reverberates for the child, and to what extent? Can the impact of racism at even the cellular level explain the greater chronic disease burden among groups like Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and actually hasten their ageing process?

Research also tells us that the impact of racism on health may vary within and between population groups, different ages, and the type and duration of exposure. What factors buffer or exacerbate that impact on an individual or community level? And where are the best moments to step in and with what sorts of interventions to address those impacts?

These questions will be the focus of a symposium on June 26-27 in Melbourne on what is still a very nascent field of study: Racism and the health and wellbeing of children and youth – understanding impacts, finding solutions.

It will bring together researchers from Australia, the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand. The aims are to:

  • initiate a national discussion by raising awareness and advance understandings of the impact of racism on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing across policy, practice, research and community contexts
  • contribute to research evidence on the impact of racism on health and advance this emergent field internationally
  • promote the uptake and utilisation of research tools to measure experiences of racism and attitudes towards diversity as a means of more rigorous assessment of enabling environments.

The symposium is funded by the Lowitja Institute, Australia’s National Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research. It is being coordinated by Dr Naomi Priest, Alfred Deakin Senior Research Fellow at  Deakin University and Senior Research Fellow  at the McCaughey VicHealth Centre for Community Wellbeing at Melbourne University.

Priest has welcomed the recent public outcry in Australia condemning very high profile incidents of racism, such as on public transport or the sporting field, but says there’s also a risk that people are tempted to see them as “isolated”.

“It’s fantastic that these sorts of incidents are getting more attention but I think the balance of that is that our community still needs to understand that racism is an everyday experience for many people and that it’s a core public health issue. It has a substantive impact on people’s health and wellbeing and is a real driver of health inequality.”

That should shift now following last week’s surprise announcement by the Federal Government that it will implement the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan, which was developed under the former Labor Government.

For the first time in such a policy document, the Plan acknowledges racism as a “key social determinant of health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people” and commits to an Australian health system “free of racism and inequality”.

Prior to the 2013 election, the Coalition described it as “yet another exercise in political spin” and there has been continuing uncertainty about its future.

Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash announced last week a plan for implementation would be developed by the end of the year, but added it would be “updated to reflect the Government’s approach and priorities for Indigenous affairs, to recognise the important links between education, employment, community safety and health.”

That focus serves Priest’s argument. She says the growing empirical evidence of the multiple ways in which racism is harmful to the health, well-being, educational and social outcomes of children and young people throughout their lives significantly overlaps with the Abbott Government’s “number one priority” in Indigenous affairs: to get Indigenous children to school.

She hopes to release at the symposium findings from research she and colleagues have been conducting on how community-based agencies like local governments and schools can prevent discrimination and support cultural diversity.

Priest is leading much of the international work around the impact of racism on child health, together with Professor Yin Paradies, who is Chair of Race Relations at Deakin University.

In 2012 she and colleagues conducted the first international systematic review of studies looking at the relationship between reported racism and health and wellbeing for children and young people. Of the 121 studies reported in English (which they admitted was itself a bias), most had been conducted in the past decade, and chiefly in the United States.

The review found a significant impact of racism on mental health and wellbeing of children and young people, but also a big need for more research in other countries and to investigate the complex and varying pathways by which racism and discrimination affect children’s health.

Priest quotes David Williams, Professor of Public Health at the Harvard School of Public Health:

“However, we do not know if interventions to address racism need to look different at varying levels of (socio-economic status) SES, which strategies to reduce racism are likely to have the greatest impact, or which domains should be tackled first.

We can argue for policies that begin to have an impact early in life because they can avert the progression of subsequent problems and provide a longer timeframe to reap the benefits.

However, research that provides a clearer sense of the optimal timing of particular interventions and the needed patterning and sequencing of a series of interventions to obtain maximal benefits for specific health outcomes would be invaluable to guide policy.”

To that end, the symposium will hear from Dr Laia Becares, from the University of Manchester, who is leading a three year research project into health inequalities experienced by ethnic minorities in the UK, US and New Zealand (NZ), which has looked specifically at the impact of both maternal and neighbourhood experiences of racism.

She and Priest hope to be able to draw Australian data and experiences into the project, particularly around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, to see how the mechanisms compare, though that will depend on whether this is sufficient and relevant Australian data available.

Priest says the UK has a number of big cohort studies to draw on, which have made an effort to “oversample minority children” to provide good measures of discrimination at both individual and neighbourhood levels. Australian data has a strong focus on Indigenous children, but more focus on children from other cultural backgrounds is needed.

Other international speakers at the symposium will include:

• Dr David Chae, a social epidemiologist from the University of Maryland’s school of public health, whose research suggests that multiple levels of racism, including interpersonal experiences of racial discrimination and the internalisation of negative racial bias, may work together to accelerate ageing among African-American men, and

• Dr Rebecca Knight from the University of Hawaii whose research focuses on the impacts of racism on Native Hawaiian youth particularly in relation to substance use and health behaviours.

As well as hearing from leading international and national researchers in the field of racism and child and youth health, the symposium will include breakout groups where attendees will be encouraged to explore policy, practice and research directions in order to form symposium recommendations and set an agenda moving forward. Those from research, policy, practice and community settings are encouraged to attend.

• Follow the Symposium discussions on Twitter at #TacklingRacism.

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