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Indigenous psychologists' call to redirect mental health funds to First Nations services

Rachel Stringfellow -

Indigenous psychologists have criticised a state of 'political limbo' they claim has led to the funneling of money into non-Indigenous organisations despite years of calls to redirect efforts to community-led, culturally-appropriate models.

Running from June 8 to 9, the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association-hosted forum was well received and attended by some from as far as Yuendumu.

Townsville Elder and professor Gracelyn Smallwood opened up the forum with critical insight into the Indigenous suicide prevention.

After 50 years of midwifery, 55 years of nursing and human rights activism since the 1960's, aunty Gracelyn's heartfelt and first-hand observations swung between jamming in 230 years of colonisation impacts, to personal anecdotes of catching babies in the bush.

Aunty Gracelyn shared her sense of justice and activism stemmed from the Stolen Generations.

"My Dad was removed as a little fair skin boy and sent to Palm Island because of the colour of his skin," she said.

"My story's not unique, it is every First Nations Australian's story.

"I became interested in the stories of the Elders way back as a teenager, and the stories were all identical; of the brutality."

Reflected in the opening speech came the sobering reflection leaving the gap open has fast become a billion-dollar enterprise.

In a call to action, aunty Gracelyn said it was important to do away with bickering to ensure the new Federal government addressed closing the gap targets.

"We don't want 95.5 per cent of the energy spent on whether we have a treaty, voice, truth or the Uluru statement.

"We need the government to know that they've got to start taking money from the greedy and giving it to the needy.

Indigenous Suicide Prevention Forum.

"Because the only programs that are effectively working is the programs from a bottom-up rather than a top-down, which is mostly paternalistic and government controlled."

Concern over white organisations receiving funding for Indigenous services is nothing new, however aunty Gracelyn laments the practice remained too common.

"The governments giving money to the 1800 numbers but I'm worried it's going to go to service, like the lifeline, like all of those white services," she said.

"A lot of our people may not utilise that number if they can't relate to the counsellor at the end of the line, who is usually white or culturally inappropriate."

Kabi Kabi and Australian South Sea Islander psychologist Kelleigh Ryan her sister Nicole Tujague each shared their insights at the forum.

"The system, it still hears the talk of holistic, it hears the talk of Indigenous led, it hears the talk of First Nations or cultural Integrity but it doesn't really understand, so then it often chooses what it always knows," Ms Ryan said.

"So it chooses the people (the system) has a relationship with, instead of the organisations who are doing the work, who have always been doing the work."

Ms Tujague said the forum helped strengthen the voice of Indigenous people in the field.

"If you've experienced a suicide incident and you watch someone start talking about that, how do you wrap around them so that they're not going to be triggered because of you trying to include their voice," she said.

"There's a lot of responsibility around it, including lived experience, but it's completely necessary for policy and practice."

In between the flurry of the forum, it doesn't go unnoticed Ms Ryan has recently been nominated to the grade of fellow by the Australian Psychology Association.

"I am the fourth Indigenous psychologist to be nominated to the grade of fellow, their highest recognition, I think, for doing the work I love," she said.

Professor Pat Dudgeon says I am a quiet achiever, a compliment which really touches my heart and spirit, now I say sounds like I am big-noting.

"The Seedling Group is Indigenous-owned and led, as Indigenous people we don't have to privilege the Indigenous worldview, we know it to be equal to non-Indigenous knowledge and worldviews.

"In relation to healing and wellbeing, we deconstruct and reconstruct complex relational issues and practices, working toward cross-cultural solutions."

As Ryan explains, "The conference is an excellent example of the critical work, not just our little family The Seedling Group but of the heavy lifting that AIPA does unfunded."

Story by Rachel Stringfellow

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