The impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Australians
A report led by the University of Western Australia has outlined the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians, revealing that the pandemic has put many Indigenous Australians at risk of severe psychological distress.
A National COVID-19 Pandemic Issues Paper on Mental Health and Wellbeing for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Peoples summarises the perspectives of a working group of more than 30 Indigenous leaders Australia-wide.
The paper iterates that the Australian Government’s response to COVID-19 must address the existing social inequities that make Indigenous peoples more vulnerable to and heavily impacted by pandemics. To date, government investment in mental health in response to the pandemic has been largely directed to mainstream services that will not meet the specific needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities.
To mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the psychological wellbeing of Indigenous people as restrictions ease, five priorities are outlined. These include the right to self-determination; health and mental health of the workforce; social and cultural determinants of health; digital and telehealth inclusion with immediate attention to an Indigenous helpline; and evaluation that includes Indigenous data sovereignty.
Professor Pat Dudgeon from UWA’s School of Indigenous Studies, who led the working group, said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were already more than twice as likely as other Australians to die by suicide.
“COVID-19 has put many more Indigenous Australians at risk of severe psychological distress,” Professor Dudgeon said.
“Prior to the pandemic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people already faced health and mental health disadvantages and inadequate and inequitable access to mental health care.
“Now modelling shows that a severe increase in suicide rates could be expected, and Indigenous people are already over-represented in suicide rates in Australia, especially youth.”
Professor Dudgeon — Director of The Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention and the Transforming Indigenous Mental Health and Wellbeing project — said it was important for the government to respond to the clear findings in the report with equitable investment to support Indigenous-led initiatives to protect health and wellbeing.
“Culturally safe, trauma-informed, lived-experience solutions that respond to the health and wellbeing needs have been established, but are under-resourced,” she explained.
“The national pandemic response for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and communities must be a priority, led, developed and delivered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, communities and people.”
The report highlighted that before COVID-19, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples already faced health and mental health disadvantages and inadequate and inequitable access to mental health.
Key recommendations outlined in the report
Self-determination: Support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and organisations to lead the pandemic mental health responses for their peoples and communities. This calls for direct funding to Indigenous organisations to fund Indigenous-led actions that will best meet the needs of Indigenous peoples, families and communities.
Health and mental health workforce: Improve the accessibility of culturally safe care that meets the needs of families and communities. It is critical to support and appropriately utilise the existing local workforce, and to create and grow a longer-term, place-based, multidisciplinary Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) workforce.
Social and cultural determinants: Implement the National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing 2017–2023 to enable culturally safe and sustainable approaches to improved mental health. Social determinants of health must be addressed and SEWB programs that are designed, delivered and culturally informed by Indigenous peoples must be supported.
Digital and telehealth: Provide accessible and affordable internet access and ensure digital and telehealth services to Indigenous communities are culturally safe and trauma-informed. An Indigenous-led helpline to be made available immediately.
Evaluation: Implement a comprehensive quantitative and qualitative national research and evaluation program that covers urban, regional and remote communities, promotes accountability of funding models, and enables Indigenous data sovereignty.
As at the end of June, fewer than 60 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, representing 0.8% of all Australian cases.
Communities have been kept physically safe through a highly successful COVID-19 health response due to the innovation, leadership and management of the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector (ACCHO) led by National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and peak organisations. Together these groups were prepared to respond independently and early in the pandemic; united diverse sectors (health, education, land councils, government agencies); protected and prepared communities for lockdown; and developed effective local communication.
These Indigenous-led actions have demonstrated the importance and impact of self-determination in promoting the health and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples in contemporary Australia.
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