Kelly Briggs writes:

I recently attended The Mental Health Services (TheMHS) Conference of Australia & New Zealand in Perth. I mainly kept my schedule to see any Indigenous topics and themes being spoken about, and at some point I too was going to present a story on my lived experience with mental illness.

The day before I was supposed to speak I attended a session called Aboriginal Peoples Mental Health – Working together makes us stronger: Creating conditions for systemic change. The speakers were Michael Wright, Margaret O’Connell, Rod Astbury, Adrian Munro, Warwick Smith, Uncle Charlie Kickett, Aunty Helene Kickett, Aunty Joanna Corbett, Aunty Louise Hansen and Uncle Albert McNamara.

They each spoke passionately and articulately, and many times I found myself tearing up. These people cared, with every word and gesture they made you could see their courage and determination to fight against the scourge that mental illness has borne.

The suicide epidemic is taking its toll on Aboriginal communities throughout Australia. But sitting there in the audience, it wasn’t just words on paper, a segment on the news or something people spoke of in hushed tones over a cup of tea after dinner.

In front of me were the people who were on the frontlines, trying to wrestle with this formless, shapeless and at times unfathomable taker of lives.

They mainly spoke about the ‘Looking Forward Project’. This is aimed specifically to change the way mental health and drug and alcohol services are delivered to Nyoongar people living in the south-east metropolitan region of Perth.

What captured my attention was when health workers approached Nyoongar Elders to speak about mental health, the Nyoongar Elders basically told them to piss off and not to come back unless they bought the people with them who could effect change, namely, bosses/policy makers who could make a difference – not foot soldiers paying lip service never to be seen again. I could have cheered.

Dr Michael Wright, a Nyoongar man, has spearheaded a team since 2010 that has worked closely with Nyoongar people and service providers in the area to understand the needs of Nyoongar families living with mental health and alcohol & drug issues and also the factors which make a mental health or drug & alcohol service culturally secure for Nyoongar people.

It is incredibly clear that Nyoongar people need non-Aboriginal people to recognise, understand and show respect for Nyoongar cultural practices, knowledge and history.

I must say here that this should be done across Australia in every community, and I have seen some attempts being made, but none more so than through this ‘Looking Forward Project’ and also the ‘Culture is Life Project’.

Both projects are borne out of the recognition that the mental health of our Aboriginal people is declining, and a return to culture is needed (I would even go so far as to say imperative) for the wellbeing of the communities involved.

Our culture has survived and is continually adapting despite the disruptive impact of colonisation. Intergenerational trauma is part and parcel for the original inhabitants of any colonised country. I by no means mean to sound flippant, but facts are facts, and this is one that cannot ever be ignored.

Something that has come out of the ‘Looking Forward Project’ is the handbook ‘Open Hearts, Open Hands: A spiritual Journey of Change Handbook’. It is designed to guide service providers through their personal journey of reflecting on and transforming their own way of seeing the world to recognise and include Nyoongar ways of understanding the world.

This is an excellent tool to promote and challenge the ways in which health service providers traditionally operate. It is an opening to the cultural differences experienced throughout Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people across Australia.

My personal view is that it can and should be adapted across a wider range of service provision, including general health and job seeking. It also serves as a means to develop an action plan for working with Elders to make their services more accessible and responsive to the needs of the community.

All of this brings me back to the paper I was going to present at the symposium. I will be honest and direct when I say about a week before the conference I was having doubts about attending. My paper was/is an incredibly personal account of my own history with mental health issues. When the day came for me to present, I found I couldn’t.

For days prior, I had done nothing but take in knowledge, sponge-like, on many different aspects of mental health. From policies, to providers, service provision and mingled amongst all of this were peoples’ own personal stories. This all affected me in a very negative way, and I found myself becoming overly anxious, prone to bouts of crying and something that my condition also sometimes manifests in is occasional agoraphobia.

I won’t expand further on my own situation because I have decided that the way forward for me is to first talk to members of my immediate and extended family and let them know about my condition before I start talking about it in the public sphere.

I have come to this conclusion after listening to Nyoongar Elders, and taking on board the importance of not staying silent about mental health, especially with the people I hold most dear and love. Most of them probably have an inkling of my issues, but I have never come outright and told exactly what my particular mental health problems are. My children know of course, and a few others, but not everyone knows who should.

My take away from the symposium is that education starts at home, with family, and extends outwards from there. And that is exactly what I will be doing.

This past week I have thought long and hard about the crises that are rampant within many Aboriginal communities, and I see the pain and suffering self-medication inflicts on family members. I see the trauma that undiagnosed mental health difficulties play in many aspects of Aboriginal communities.

When I have spoken about my own situation with the people I love, then I will have the strength to talk openly and without fear about my own issues.

© Kelly Briggs, 2014. This article is not available for republication without permission

• You can track The Croakey Koori columns here.

(Visited 33 times, 1 visits today)