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Making diabetes care more culturally safe

Rachael Knowles -

Gulumerridjin Traditional Custodian and Karrajarri man Christopher Lee is taking action to support and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with Diabetes.

Manager of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement at Diabetes Australia, Lee was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in 2014.

"It was an absolute struggle to try and find out anything about my condition or any information or resources that related to me and my lived experience as an Aboriginal person," Lee said.

"I was diagnosed around 2014 out in Toowoomba. I went in for the Deadly Choices check, then they rang me back and said doctor needs to see you.

"I rock up and he tells me I have Type 2 Diabetes. I had no idea what it was, was it poor lifestyle choice? Was my upbringing wrong?"

Now, seven years on, Lee has a lot more knowledge around Diabetes but has faced ignorance and adversity.

"We are genetically predisposed to getting Diabetes," he said.

"I went through four or five different Aboriginal Medical Services in southeast Queensland. In one of them, the doctor said it was my fault, I had made poor lifestyle choices and brought it on myself."

Researching on the internet and sifting through resources, it wasn't until Lee got to yarn with a friend did he find confidence.

"It wasn't until I found a brother that we got to sit and yarn. We spoke about his Type 2 Diabetes and what I needed to know," he said.

"A yarning conversation with someone I respected, someone I trusted, and in a language I understood. From that point, I had a basic understanding and through talking with some fantastic health professionals, I've built up the trust to ask why this happens."

Before his time with Diabetes Australia, Lee was working in the prison system in Queensland.

"It was a massive change, working in the prison system with a lot of mob in there. I was working as a custodial officer then I went to a cultural liaison officer role," he said.

"I was mixing with the mob, I had worked on the Royal Commission into Child Abuse, so I was aware of a lot of the intergenerational trauma.

"I then landed in this corporate environment that was so different, it was full of non-Indigenous people and I was like, what have I gotten myself into?"

Coming into the organisation as the first Aboriginal person in a senior executive role in 30 years, Lee had big goals to achieve.

"All of our resources we had as an organisation that targeted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with Diabetes weren't working. The language didn't work, there was a one-size-fits-all approach," he said.

"Language is exclusive, if you don't understand the language you are excluded from that conversation.

"A lot of mob, and I certainly did in the early days, lacked the language to ask my doctor what was going on."

"A lot of the work I have been going in the last few years is ensuring that we have some culturally and linguistically appropriate resources for mob."

Making big moves, Diabetes Australia released their Back on Track campaign after COVID-19 which encouraged people to re-prioritise their health.

"During COVID, we have research to say that a lot of people with Diabetes, particularly the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, were disengaged from their healthcare. In the early days, all the information was panic. A lot of people weren't going out, weren't engage with healthcare or medication," Lee said.

"Our latest campaign, Back on Track, is around getting people back on track with their health, including their mental health which is so important."

In 2021, Diabetes Australia is continuing their commitment to supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with Diabetes.

"We're working with Menzies School of Health Research ... they have done research that shows ... our rates of Type 2 Diabetes and Gestation Diabetes are the highest in the world. We're looking at doing language translation for those communities," said Lee.

"We're not a clinical or research organisation, we are advocacy. We need to own the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resource space."

"We have entry level resources we're developing which is yarning on Country talking about Diabetes and we're backing that up with animation and language resources."

Lee has worked to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are a priority in Diabetes advocacy.

"I look at a pathway that is informed by my culture, my family, my community, connections and networks I make in the Aboriginal Health community and look at this knowing it is simple what we need to do. We just need the backing and the budget to implement these things," he said.

"Looking just at Diabetes was too narrow of a focus, we needed to look at mental health, intergenerational trauma, poverty, other social determinants. These [are] all ... specific and research impacts on why our mob have developed such high levels of Diabetes."

Find out more about Diabetes Australia here:

By Rachael Knowles


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