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Not My Culture – is a short animated conversation on Alcohol, other drugs and indigenous culture. “Strong and deadly – true culture is strength!”

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Individual resilience: Individual resilience appeared to be a strong contributor to better managing the impact of racism in community. This resilience was often demonstrated in community members who might variously be supported by a kinship network, who were educated, those with a strong sense of identity and those who were in employment and had stable housing.

  • Individual resilience stemming from strong kinship support, stable housing and financial security contributed to alleviating the impact of racism
  • Elders assisted the community to overcome trauma/harm associated with racism and problematic alcohol and other drug use
  • In some communities, the capacity to minimise the impact of other drugs was seen as an outcome of community leaders making it clear that use of these drugs was not accepted within their communities.
  • Elder participants spoke of their own efforts to support and bring their communities together.  

When there’s problems, everyone gets together to try to help. We (as Elders) have meetings about it, everyone comes in… people are helpful. We (the Elders) had a gathering, brought kids from homes and the streets and brought them here and fed them and played games. It was a good day.” Elder research participants

  • Participants felt their best when connected to their families and communities, and when being noticed, respected and cared for. They also felt best when able to support others, including in relation to alcohol and other drug use.

“Being well is about being strong and staying strong. Being a father and black fella… I want to try to help others on the street. Seeing others succeed because of my help, seeing others doing good is feeling well yourself. It makes you want to push more. I want to be a mentor to someone to see where they are coming from. Staying on the positive side. Being a role model. Talking and listening helps…”  Community member research participants

  • Fundamentally, employment and education were seen as key drivers of good mental health and wellbeing. Lack of employment opportunities…was related to poor mental health and harmful behaviours, which in many cases contributed to affected children suffering from neglect and hunger. 

“When you have a job, you don’t think about alcohol and drugs and all that.” 

Community member research participant

  • A low standard of education was seen as a barrier to communication about healthy behaviours with the need for service providers to ‘break down the jargon’ to help people to understand the meaning of information provided and to be able to talk about their problem. 

“Some people too scared to talk. Given a Panadol and told to go home – didn’t explain what was wrong with them. Need someone to break down the jargon. Lot of people don’t want to say their problem. Lot not well educated.” Community member research participant

  • There was a call for community programs to address social isolation and potential harmful behaviours…This included parenting programs, youth camps and social events to provide night-time opportunities for adults to meet outside of ‘club or pub’ venues.
  • Elders assist the community to overcome trauma/harm. We note that racism is known to adversely impact those who are survivors of trauma (Helms et al 2010). Support from Elders and community mentors was crucial in addressing harm and trauma from racist behaviour in the community. While Elders in some communities had a strong influence on their community, in other communities they felt that they have been repeatedly ignored and disregarded by official processes (‘mainstream ways of doing things’), eroding their traditional authority in community.
  • Awareness of potential harm Participants with lived experience had varied understandings of the impact of alcohol and other drug use upon themselves. Most did not think that the use of alcohol and cannabis were ‘problematic’ to themselves, but had understanding of the potentially harmful behaviours to their family members. Participants who used methamphetamine were more attuned to its impact on their wellbeing but felt less able to control its use.  Some participants understood that using alcohol and other drugs provided a safety valve and means for relieving stress from their personal circumstances, including financial stress and past traumatic experiences. 

“Getting drunk and passing out was a way of coping and sleeping.” 

Participant with lived experience

AOD USE Causes Trauma and Adds to Intergenerational Trauma

In a focus group with three generations of women from the same family who had spent the night in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander operated diversionary centre, there was a shared view that the trauma they had experienced (either as a victim survivor or a witness) from domestic violence would not be visited on their children because ‘they were safe’. Being safe meant that they had agreed that the children (of the youngest generation) be taken into care by Child Protection.

‘Kids see drinking, smoking and violence and copy that behaviour. Our kids are protected from seeing that – they are in a safe house.’

Looking at this situation through a trauma lens would suggest that the controlled emotionless state of these women’s narration potentially demonstrates a level of disassociation, enabled to manage their lack of control over being able to care for and protect their children, and the pain associated with removals. Their story shows both collective complex intergenerational trauma and individual complex trauma.

Self-shame and stigma from family and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members was more present in research participants who primarily use other drugs compared to research participants who primarily use alcohol.

  • Drivers of change: Participants acknowledged that self-realisation and determination was the most effective cause of change, often driven by the desire to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their children or grandchildren.

“I know it affected my family… I couldn’t really support them, even for food… I know I was a bad father… It hurts now to know this. When I learned (my daughter) was pregnant I thought I need to think about my grandchild now, I can’t be like that.” Participants with lived experience

  • Cultural/Familial Coercion is Useful: Some participants were ‘forced’ to change by their family members and/or kinship networks including Elders in the form of an ultimatum requiring those affected to choose, for example, between being excluded from learnings about their culture and/or from contact with their spouse and children, and their behaviour. These individuals considered that ‘family and culture saved me’. Participants who were ordered to attend programs for their alcohol and other drug use by correctional services did not find them successful. These programs were perceived to instigate compliance rather than real behavioural change.
  • Gaining strength from their connection to their families and to the ‘bushland’ and the importance of connecting to ‘culture and land’ as part of their recovery
  • Seeking support from individuals/services who are stable, consistent and can form a ‘routine’. One of the core principles of trauma-informed care is ‘trustworthiness’ and individuals experiencing trauma respond better in predictability and minimal change

“I come here every day because I know they will be here. They are always here. There’s no surprises.” (A local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation) are doing good, cause they are always here they are reliable they never change. In other places you need to have appointments, can you come back, whatever. You can just drop in here, Murri time.” Participants with lived experience

Finally, a few participants talked about the importance of religion in their lives and described how their interactions with religious organisations and clerics were instrumental to their recovery and sustained wellbeing.

“I started talking to (a priest) and realised what I was doing wrong… I believe in Him now. I pray and He gives me strength.” Participant with lived experience

(Excerpts from “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities, Families and Individuals “Don’t Judge and Listen!” Experiences of stigma and discrimination related to problematic alcohol and other drug use” (QLD Mental Health Commission, March 2020)

Resiliency for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

We can all be resilient and for thousands of years Indigenous people in this land we call Australia have been resilient – resilient to the harsh environment, resilient to colonialism, resilient to industrialism, resilient to dispossession, resilient to trauma, etc.  But a consistent thing through all of this has been a connection to land and culture.  They draw strength from who they are and their connections to each other, the land and their customs.  This has never changed.  If they live in the city, on a rural block or out bush; there is strength for them in the ability to be grounded ‘on country’.  Who an Indigenous person is, is linked to where they come from (their ‘country’ and culture – their mob) and who they are related to.  So, when trauma or addiction or racism attack their lives they have a safe place, and a place to be refreshed/revitalised by immersing themselves on their land and in their culture.

The land and culture are consistencies in life.  The fact that they don’t change and can be experienced will give strength in a changing, technological, media-rich, individualistic, hedonistic western world that is vying for the total attention of Australian inhabitants.  Land and culture give opportunity to be strong and resilient when the waves of the modern world are crashing down and lives are being ruined – because it reminds people what is important.  Family. Culture. Faith. Place.

We all need to draw strength from somewhere in ‘our ever-changing world’ and there are a few points to make here:

  • Does the thing or place where we get strength actually help us?  If it does, then go there!
  • Does it matter that other people don’t understand? No.  If it’s effective and helpful for you, without potential to harm, then the acceptance or understanding of others isn’t important, as it is you that is needing the help.
  • I don’t need to find strength in the place/way that is effective for you if I have a place/way that is effective for me.  The old ways are still good ways – if they work for me.  So we need to stop value judging what is good/bad – better – best.

There are a lot of pressures on everyone in our modern world, and as we mature the common thought is that some ‘childish’ things get left behind in the process of our sophistication.  Things like security blankets, religion, culture activities, family dependence, etc but why do they need to be ‘left behind’ if they help to ground us for our sanity and resilience.  The pressure, even psychologically, to ‘move on’ is another constant pressure on Indigenous people to embrace and be swallowed up by the new world.  Perpetuating the dispossession they experience that is far more than just physical and land related.  Racism is underlined by conformity and conformity undermines resiliency.  Indigenous resiliency that is linked to ‘the oldest culture’ has a lot going for it that we can learn from in our modern world – centred on family and relationships/connectedness, grounded in the land and expressed through a strong/rich culture. The old ways are still good ways!!!  The next time someone suggests you stop or slow down and smell the roses, it might be better to stop, take of your shoes/socks and sit by the campfire.

Dalgarno Institute

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‘We recognise that the social, emotional, spiritual and cultural wellbeing of the whole community is paramount in determining the health and wellbeing of individual members. The holistic nature of our knowledge and cultures locates health in culture, community and kinship networks.’ 

Janine Mohamed, CEO, Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (Closing Gap Report 2019 page 119) 

“…Smoking and tobacco use, is the leading contributor to cancer, respiratory and circulatory diseases (mainly the cardiovascular diseases), and accounted for 12 per cent of the total Indigenous disease burden in 2011 (AIHW 2016). There has been some progress in controlling prevalence of these risk factors. Smoking prevalence for Indigenous Australians (aged 15 years and over) has declined significantly from 51 to 42 per cent between 2002 and 2014–15. The rate of drinking alcohol at lifetime risky levels has also declined from 19 per cent to 15 per cent, between 2008 and 2014–15, among Indigenous Australians (aged 15 and over) (AHMAC 2016). However, while some health effects of the positive changes in risk factor prevalence may be immediate, there is a long lag between changes in risk behaviours and the full impact upon mortality outcomes. For example, the long latent period for lung cancer which can be up to 30 years, means that, despite falls in smoking rates, smoking related deaths may continue to rise over the next decade, before peaking (Lovett, Thurber & Maddox 2017). Page 134

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Acclaimed indigenous artist Stan ‘Yarra’ Yarramunua ditched the booze and picked up a paintbrush in 1991. He writes of his transformation in his new book 

I WAS lucky when I gave up the grog that I had something to fill the empty space left by the booze. This was another big development from my time down there in Galiamble (Men’s Alcohol and Drug Recovery Centre), one that changed my life. One of the programs Galiamble ran for the clients was an art class. A woman, Samantha, used to come to Grey St (St Kilda) and show the guys how to paint on canvas. It happened one fine day that I was mooching through the studio and stopped to look at what the clients were up to. There was a blank canvas on offer. I thought, “Stan, my friend, give it a crack.” I set to work squeezing out colours onto the palette. I rested the canvas flat on the bench top and let inspiration take over. I had no knowledge of traditional designs, had barely seen indigenous artwork before, but even without knowing, I began to create what was a true indigenous painting. 

...No one disturbed me. I filled one brush then another with colours from the tubes in a dreamy state, and my hands did the painting. I left the picture in the studio when I was finished, and it was still there the next day when Samantha returned. I happened to be there at the moment she caught sight of my picture. She picked it up in both hands, and stared at it in a puzzled way. “Whose is this?” “That one? That’s mine. Sorry if I wasted a canvas. Just fooling round.” “Stan, this is terrific. Perfect. Do you want to sell it?” “Yeah? You want to buy this?” “Yes, I do. How much do you want?” I didn’t know anything about prices. Samantha said she’d give me a hundred bucks. I thought, “She’s mad.” But I said sure. That was when my life as an artist began... 

As soon as I went to work on a canvas, I was in that state that made the world disappear. I might have wanted to flip out a picture every 20, 30 minutes but the truth was that the artist in me had a much bigger say in things than the merchant in me. I had to get the picture right. And I couldn’t paint the same picture over and over. Each one had to have something special about it. What was happening to me as an artist was what happens to all the other artists in the world, that’s my guess. I was being forced to accept a deal...

Soon the demand for my stuff was too much for me to handle. I drove to the northwest of the state in my rubbish Nissan to work something out with my uncles, aunties and cousins on Mum’s side...There was only so much I could put on show in the space on the Esplanade, so I took myself up to Queen Victoria Market. I negotiated a site with the market people. But even a site in St Kilda and another at the Queen Vic weren’t enough to get art into the hands of people who wanted it. I applied for a second site at QV, and a third. 

I was still off the booze, and I loved my new life. I was working a seven-day fortnight at Turana, but I was packed with energy. Once I was off the booze, I could hold that paintbrush for hours and hours, singing and whistling to myself. I was ready for anything. 


For complete article go to June 2 issue of The Herald Sun Digital Edition Copyright © 2018 The Herald Sun

RyderPainting sml

The Artwork – This narrative work was commissioned by the Dalgarno Institute in 2017 and is the cornerstone of our Indigenous AOD Education supplement.

Artist: Marie Ryder, an internationally acclaimed Indigenous artist, grew up at Santa Teresa (Ltyentye Apurte) community, 80 kilometres Southeast of Alice Springs with her eight younger brothers and sisters. Her mother is Therese Ryder, a highly respected illustrative and landscape artist. Marie is married to Kevin Bird Mpetyane (grandson of Ada Bird Petyarre) and lives happily in Alice Springs. 

Marie first put paint to canvas when she was in her early 20’s. As a child, she watched her mother painting, observing her techniques and from this developed her own style. Her traditional paintings are a celebration of the bush foods from Central Australia. They are highly representational using rich colours to depict her country. Her work is held in many private collections both interstate and overseas. Her work has also been represented in many group exhibitions.

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