How culture can be good for mental health

21 March 2019

Julia Gillard

In a previous life, my work took me to many corners of this diverse country.

To the fast-paced cities where so many people thrive on the rush to meet deadlines, update Twitter feeds, beat the traffic, climb the corporate ladder and squeeze in a yoga session to slow down.

To the rural regions where the faces of men and women working the land tell stories of struggle and hardship, but not once would you hear a word of complaint.

Those country towns are where I met some of the most resilient people, always willing to lend their neighbour a hand, and fire up the barbeque at the local primary school working bee.

And those vibrant multicultural hubs in the suburbs, where people of so many nationalities come together to celebrate their diversity through festivals, concerts or the delicious foods of their homeland.

I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have experienced the incredible richness of cultures right here, in our backyard in Australia.

Culture is a word that is often tangled up with nationality and religion, but it entails much more.

Our culture determines so much of our identity; our values, the way we view the world, the way we interact with others, our sense of belonging.

In difficult times we draw on our culture for strength; those familiar ideas, stories, people and places we seek out to find security.

Our culture protects us.

And if a single piece of our culture was taken away, erased or replaced it would leave us feeling uncertain, disconnected.

The significance of culture has never been as apparent to me as when I visited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

No matter which Indigenous community I visited or who I spoke to, be it a group of women, Elders or a child, it was clear how deeply culture was engrained in their lives.

It was there in the languages they spoke, the paintings they created, the songs they sang.

Through story-telling they kept their history alive and helped people feel the special sense of security that comes with knowing where you came from.

The consequences of losing that connection to culture were also clear; the sense of dislocation and loneliness that can descend when a person feels uprooted and without deep connection to any place or any people.

Today, Indigenous Australians are twice as likely to die by suicide than non-Indigenous people.

They are three times more likely to be psychologically distressed.

Since 2012, suicide has been the leading cause of death among Indigenous young people aged 15 to 34 years of age.

It’s a sad and highly complex issue with many contributing factors but we know that the breakdown in connection between Indigenous people and their culture, has had a devastating effect on their mental health.

Separation from land, family and Elders, together with the decline of traditional society and language, has gradually eroded the culture that once helped people to thrive.

It’s hard to believe that despite the alarming statistics on Indigenous suicide and psychological distress, there are no mental health targets in Australia’s Closing the Gap strategy – a national plan that aims to increase life expectancy, improve health, education and employment outcomes among Indigenous people.

Good mental health is central to each of these objectives.

I’m heartened to see that there has been an agreement for the Government to partner with more than 40 Indigenous health and justice groups on a new Closing the Gap Strategy.

Beyond Blue has called for mental health targets to be set and included in the strategy.

We hope our call is a useful one for the new partnership group to consider.

Last year, Beyond Blue launched its Reconciliation Action Plan which strengthened our commitment to work effectively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

When it comes to mental health I have no doubt that culture provides a protective shield for us all.

No matter what corner of Australia we live in, let’s recognise the importance of culture and the vital effect it has on our wellbeing.