It is easy to say that Indigenous people are at fault.
But if we understand the concept of trauma, we can create a very different understanding.
Trauma is deep-seated in the Aboriginal community.
To understand it is to understand the centrality of ongoing, structural relationships to health; to accept the seriousness of Indigenous people’s historical and continuing relationship with colonial society.
The World Health Organisation acknowledges the «remarkable sensitivity of health to the social environment”, so much so that we are now familiar with the term, “social determinants of health”.
The WHO acknowledges that physical and social environments can diminish capacity, limit control of material resources and exacerbate health problems.
It is in these contexts that all other determinants of health are constructed.
And beyond this is a larger systems reality: our whole society is built on colonialism.
Understanding this as a determinant of health is critical.
Colonialism is the bedrock that has continued to enable and control the historic, political, social, and economic contexts shaping Indigenous, state and non-Indigenous relations.
The colonial enterprise employed disenfranchising, assimilationist and genocidal tactics.
Racism is one of its key characteristics and therefore had a negative influence on how Indigenous people were positioned in broader society.
Aboriginal people have endured long-term oppression and discrimination and consequentially they have been marginalised in economic, political, cultural and social terms.
There are clear direct effects of colonial settlement on Indigenous health; for example, the introduction of contagious diseases such as smallpox.
But colonial policies have affected the funding and organisation of housing, health care, education and labour systems.
They have also affected the extent to which Indigenous people can operate their environmental stewardship and maintain cultural continuity.
Current disparities – for example, the numerous communities with inadequate housing and infrastructure for proper sanitation – also reflect the protracted effects of land dispossession and colonial impacts on cultural continuity and access to traditional economies, as well as a deliberate separation from mainstream monetary economies.
These disparities are generally beyond the individual or community’s control.
Colonialism has also been produced and reinforced within our mental health systems.
Recognising its influence on contemporary Indigenous lives as a determinant of health and wellbeing, leads us to the inevitable question: whether colonialism is a finished project.
Clearly, whole communities are still trying to recover from the impacts of colonial legislation, the structural influences and continuing assimilationist policies perpetuated by governments.
Contemporary authors suggest that it has never ceased; that our history of colonialism is interconnected with continuing policies and historical events that influence the present; that a legacy of intergenerational impacts is compounded by continuing colonial mentalities.
The term «post-colonial» encourages a settler interpretation of history. This perception prioritises European history and seeks to place uncomfortable stories behind us.
It neutralises historical inequalities and emphasises an inappropriate picture that does not reflect the lived experience of contemporary Indigenous people.
The politics of whitewashing of the history of relations between Indigenous people and the colonial state is currently in overdrive.
It seeks to develop a public consciousness that is ignorant of policies, practices and the laws that were established to subjugate Indigenous children, their families and communities.
‘Closing the gap’ will require a sustained commitment to reform, both from the various levels of government, and the Indigenous community.
Addressing the ongoing effects of colonialism, decolonising Indigenous mental health and allowing for just and appropriate control over things such as health services, is inherently related to self-determination and improving wellbeing.
It will require us to acknowledge that health gaps are the result of colonial intervention.
And that they reflect a mindset of consent to inaction from governments, which has only contributed to the gap we want to close.
Stephen Hall has worked in community development, policy, advocacy and law reform, most recently at Shelter WA where he wrote and lobbied against the Commonwealth’s withdrawal of funding for housing in remote communities. Stephen will soon commence a position in the Western Desert region, managing an Aboriginal-owned media organisation.