Helping a stolen generation

For tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people thrived in the harsh environment of what is now called Australia. Then the Europeans arrived.

More than two centuries after that first contact, Australia's indigenous people are still struggling with the psychological impact of the oppression that followed. Representing just 2 percent of the country's population, indigenous Australians suffer disproportionately high rates of depression, self-harm and suicide. Alcoholism, substance abuse and violence plague their communities.

And all too often the psychologists who have tried to help haven't known enough about their country's history to do their jobs effectively, say those in the field.

"Psychology in Australia is quite homogenous, and the emphasis has been on universalizing experience," says Graham R. Davidson, PhD, the Foundation Professor of Psychology at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton. "That's the reason Australian psychology has tended to marginalize indigenous viewpoints. Now that's starting to change."

Recognizing cultural differences

Europeans settled in Australia in 1788, when the British established a colony at Sydney Cove. In the years that followed, colonists battled natives for their land. They poisoned natives' waterholes and organized hunting parties with human prey. They forced others into reserves. The cultural destruction continued even after policies shifted from extermination to assimilation: The government removed thousands of indigenous children from their families and placed them in white homes--a practice that continued until the 1970s.

Australian psychologists did little to ameliorate the suffering caused by this history of oppression until recently, says Davidson, who co-authored a history of the Australian Psychological Society's involvement in indigenous affairs for a special issue of Australian Psychologist last year. Before the late 1980s, psychologists working with indigenous Australians focused primarily on testing and education.

Over the last decade, however, several factors have contributed to psychologists' growing interest in indigenous issues. Community-oriented psychologists began to notice the horrifying statistics on indigenous mental health. Indigenous Australians themselves started getting psychological training and launched a movement to gain greater control of the mental health services designed to serve them. Non-native psychologists began to recognize their own profession's racist attitudes.

Now the question is how to help an overwhelmingly white profession work effectively with indigenous clients. Henry B. Andrews, EdD, an adjunct senior lecturer in psychology at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, is one psychologist working to develop a culturally sensitive approach to working with indigenous Australians.

"Psychologists with no prior experience will often end up trying to treat an indigenous person in a psychiatric ward or they'll get sent to work up north fresh out of university," says Andrews, who has researched culturally appropriate psychotherapy with doctoral candidate David Vicary. "All they've ever been taught is the Western model of intervention. Then they wonder why they get absolutely nowhere."

According to Andrews, indigenous Australians' view of mental illness is often completely different than Western psychology's. Even acculturated urbanites may assume that psychological problems are the result of being "sung" by someone wishing them harm, he explains. And their idea of treatment may be to go back to their home turf and seek help from their families, elders or spiritual healers.

When problems become so dire that indigenous Australians are forced into contact with psychologists, the normal rules of Western psychology don't apply. In traditional psychotherapy, for example, psychologists keep the therapeutic relationship pure by refusing to reveal much about themselves. That approach just won't work with indigenous Australians, says Andrews. To avoid breaking various taboos, he explains, indigenous Australians often require elaborate introductions that not only include who you are but whom you know. Even the setting may differ, with psychological interventions often taking place outside rather than in offices.

But nonindigenous psychologists don't just have to learn about the various indigenous peoples, says psychologist Patricia Dudgeon, head of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin and co-editor of Working with Indigenous Australians: A Handbook for Psychologists (Gunada Press, 2000). They also need to gaze inward. "When you work cross-culturally, you not only have to find out what [your clients] believe, but also become aware of your own values and beliefs," she says. "It's a two-way street."

Training indigenous psychologists is also key, says Dudgeon, a member of the Bardi people. Even by Australian standards, which don't require doctoral-level training for psychologists, there are only a handful of indigenous psychologists. That's starting to change, says Dudgeon, noting that the indigenous mental health movement is only a decade old. Already there are community-based training programs for indigenous mental health providers. Some indigenous Australians, Dudgeon included, are seeking out doctoral- level training.

"Our oppression has continued until quite recently," she says, noting that the first indigenous university student graduated in 1967. "The first wave of our [indigenous] professionals is just coming out now."

Promoting reconciliation

In addition to their traditional roles, many Australian psychologists also focus on social issues. That work has taken on new urgency since 1991, when the government established a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to create bonds of trust and respect among all Australians. Government reports on child removal and indigenous deaths in custody also heightened interest.

Some psychologists are working to help indigenous Australians cope with the aftermath of past policies. One member of the "stolen generation," indigenous psychologist Joyleen Koolmatrie of Perth, has given workshops around Australia to help others deal with unresolved grief about being removed from their homes as children.

Others are trying to help white Australians come to grips with their collective history of violence. Ross Williams, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Victoria University of Technology in Melbourne, has studied white guilt.

For Colleen Turner, director of social issues at the Australian Psychological Society, all this activity is a good sign.

"It's important that we don't pathologize Aboriginal people," she adds. "Both researchers and those working directly with Aboriginal people need to acknowledge the things Aboriginal people have achieved and the enormous value they put into their own communities."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

This article is part of the Monitor's yearlong series on psychology around the globe.