Polly Seaton is 26 years old and experiencing firsthand what psychological and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can do to a young person. Seaton has been through a decade of depression, and struggled with using her voice to help others to ask for help.
She is one of the hundreds of underprivileged young people who receive peer education – a combined program of clinical and non-clinical services – through an Indigenous service called Makari Aboriginal, and is a member of the Rainforest Warriors tribal community in New Zealand.
Since I spoke with Seaton, I have learned from consultants, program managers and mental health professionals that more can be done to address mental health challenges among Indigenous youth and that a trauma-informed approach could be just the solution.
According to the latest report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were more than 4,100 Indigenous suicide deaths between 1994 and 2012.
Eighty-one per cent of suicide deaths were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, while 14 per cent were non-Indigenous people.
When one examines the Indigenous suicide statistics, it becomes clear that Black Islanders were hit harder than other groups due to past dispossession, historical trauma and ongoing institutionalised racism.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have been estimated to be up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than other Australians.
Add to this the mental health challenges experienced by Indigenous youth in New Zealand, and what appears to be an endemic problem with depression and suicide seems to be present on all four sides of the Pacific.
In 2006, the New Zealand government presented findings of a government-commissioned mental health survey to a parliamentary select committee. The study found that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people surveyed had a history of experiencing trauma in their early life and that the patterns were consistent with non-Indigenous people.
Little changed in the way mental health was received and received services by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander New Zealanders until 2013. Until then, young people in the New Zealand Maori and Pacific Island communities were constantly battling racism from both governments and mental health professionals.
In 2013, the Maori and Pacific Island communities welcomed a federal government decision to create a comprehensive mental health program for these communities. The data collected by the government showed that the rate of bullying, stigma and support was low.
Creating an Indigenous mental health program is simple. What is difficult, however, is getting Indigenous New Zealanders to access this service and know how to ask for it.
The New Zealand Maori and Pacific Island communities are known to have uniquely developed cultural practices and approaches to care and healing.
However, a survey undertaken by the Coalition for New Zealand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health, which covers both Maori and Pacific Island communities, highlighted the need for culturally specific mental health services and a focus on cultural education.
Within the culturally specific approach are cultural discussions, short surveys, suicide awareness and resilience training and four-week workshops across all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.
It is unknown whether any impact will be made on overall suicide rates, but Maori and Pacific Island communities are still not using services as effective as they can be because they are not being offered by mental health providers.
Mental health service providers need to understand that mental health is a public health issue, and so they need to be using culturally appropriate mental health services and assessment for depression and suicide prevention and resilience education for Indigenous Maori and Pacific Island communities.
In short, it is believed that if mental health problems could be addressed within Indigenous communities earlier, the burden would be much lower as a result of social and cultural factors.
(This week we are at the G20 meetings in Argentina and India. There is a session on mental health focused on the aging population and how we deal with age-related and mental health issues. For more information about the meeting visit: G20