Community healing

Indigenous peoples around the world have suffered as a consequence of colonisation. In the years since European settlement of Australia the whole way of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities has been devastated. Indigenous communities across the country have experienced wave after wave of debilitating shocks and traumas leaving individuals, families and communities in immense pain.

The resulting high levels of personal, familial and societal distress have been passed down from generation to generation and culminated in many communities working to heal the outcomes of trauma such as alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, and child abuse and neglect.

At the same time Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have shown great resilience and survival in the face of this and are using this strength and experience to create their own solutions.

Lateral violence

‘Trauma disrupts and restructures relationships between people.’

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities face many challenges in overcoming the devastating legacy of colonisation and forced removals. Sadly some of the most divisive and damaging harms now come from within these highly traumatised communities in the form of gossiping, jealousy, bullying, social exclusion, organisational conflict, family feuding, intimidation and violence. This has come to be known as lateral violence.

Lateral violence impedes both personal and family healing and underlines the need for healing to be enabled at the community level and include opportunities for communities to come together to discuss the impacts of colonisation and create a shared vision for their community’s healing journey.

Healing our communities

Research by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation found the impact of healing projects is far greater when they are part of a wider community healing strategy and there is a ‘critical mass’ of projects working together in a coordinated manner.

Pioneers of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healing movement have also emphasised the importance of community healing and the place community has always played in creating social order and harmony. According to Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson ’healing requires a supportive environment with people who care … the single most important restorative need for people who have been victimised is a supportive and caring family and community‘. In her 2002 book on trauma and healing, Professor Atkinson wrote ‘the dynamic processes of engaging in communal activities of communicating, expressing and managing conflict’ was ‘the essence of Being Aboriginal’.

Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture does not recognise mental or physical health issues as distinct medical conditions. Instead wellness is considered in the context of relationship to family, community, culture, land and spirituality.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the social, emotional, cultural, spiritual and physical wellbeing of the whole community is ‘paramount’ to achieving individual wellness.

Group-based or collective healing approaches are most appropriate for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people especially members of the Stolen Generations. This is in stark contrast to the individual, disease-focused approach of Western medicine.

Strong collaborative partnerships between and across communities and service providers are essential to fostering effective healing outcomes. Healing programs in turn have been proven to provide a pathway to other essential services that have in many instances struggled to engage Aboriginal people.

State, territory and federal governments are increasingly recognising the importance of community-level responses in healing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In NSW, recent reports by the Ministerial Taskforce on Aboriginal Affairs and the NSW Ombudsman have highlighted the relationship between healing and building strong, safe communities, and urged the government to prioritise and invest in developing community healing responses. The role of healing and, in particular, the need for a range of appropriate responses is also gaining prominence in other jurisdictions.

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