Mainstream treatments for depression are failing Indigenous Australians, according to Queensland researchers who are developing a new mental healthcare model that incorporates traditional healing.
- One in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders experiences high to very high levels of psychological distress
- A unique mental health program marries mainstream treatment with traditional healing
- The University of Queensland trial, which is expected to run until late 2022, has shown early positive outcomes
One in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders experiences high to very high levels of psychological distress — 2.5 times more than other Australians.
A study, published today by the University of Queensland, found that current treatment models were failing because they did not incorporate an Indigenous understanding of mental health.
Lead researcher Maree Toombs, Associate Dean (Indigenous Engagement) at the UQ Faculty of Medicine, said results showed that treating depression in Indigenous communities needed to extend beyond clinical approaches.
"Retaining culture, spiritual beliefs, autonomy and a connection to country will have a significant impact on improving Indigenous mental health and wellbeing," Dr Toombs said.
Traditional ways of healing are needed
The treatment model, based on feedback from more than 90 communities in south-west and south-east Queensland, is currently being trialled with 26 people.
"What we heard overwhelmingly was that people wanted to go back to traditional ways of healing," Dr Toombs said.
After 10 sessions with a clinical psychologist, the participants work with a traditional healer.
"It's an evidence-collecting baseline study to prove what we already know," Dr Toombs said.
"When you use Indigenous ways of knowing and doing, it can heal spirit.
"We've spoken extensively with Indigenous elders and one of the interesting things is just how many traditional healers, male and female, sit across different communities but they have almost gone to ground.
"They are starting to come out now as healers and want to be a part of the community in that respect."
Traditional healers playing greater role in mental health care
One of the traditional healers participating in the trial is Alan Martin, a Gunggari elder.
"I've had some amazing spiritual awakenings and I went through some amazing initiations to be there with my spiritual ancestors and spiritual guides helping me along the way," Uncle Alan said.
"There are people in the community who are afraid of what we do and say: 'We don't do that stuff no more' and they're afraid to come across it.
"But there are people who are looking for those answers and really want it to come through."
Across Australia, traditional healers are playing a greater role in the response to the mental health crisis although they have no legal recognition or government funding.
"In the past, everyone went to healers because they were the wise ones, the doctors, the medicine men," Uncle Alan said.
"We know that there is a lot of Ngangkari healers up in the Territory and South Australia that travel around the country and do some of this stuff already in hospitals and medical centres, so it is becoming recognised."
Connection to country important
The UQ trial, which is expected to run until late 2022 with funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, has shown early positive outcomes.
"From all of our participants who have completed [the joint treatment], they have got on with their lives," Dr Toombs said.
"That is what I think this is going to achieve for many who go through it."
The trial builds on earlier work by the UQ researchers on the link between connection to country and mental health.
This year's NAIDOC Week theme Heal Country focuses on how Indigenous connection to country is inherent to spiritual, physical, emotional, social and cultural wellbeing.
Dr Toombs said there was emerging evidence of the link between health and Indigenous connections to traditional grounds.
"Culture and identity were found to be central towards perceptions of health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians, not just individually, but as a community," she said.
"Rates of mental disorders for those residing on country have been identified as about half of those in mainstream communities.
"Evidence suggests positive health changes are experienced when Indigenous people reside, work, and live on country."
Word of Alan Martin's role in mental health treatment is spreading.
He has been invited by several Aboriginal medical centres in other parts of Queensland to visit communities in the coming weeks.
"It's just a matter of getting it out there and doing it more," he said.