Mental illness and inequality
Updated: Apr 18
Inequality, both in Australia and all over the world, appears in many forms, including class, gender, race and ethnicity. Inequality has a significant negative impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of those who are subject to it.
Racial inequality in Australia has been with us since the English invasion more than 200 years ago, and was highlighted again recently following the death of black American George Floyd at the hands of police, resulting in a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) throughout the world. The world's attention to the horrific death in America and the subsequent attention on the BLM movement has reignited awareness in Australia that we too are far from an egalitarian society, prompting a re-examination of racial injustice and its consequences.
In a survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 30 per cent of Indigenous Australians surveyed reported high psychological distress levels, which was three times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014).
Factors contributing to this inequality and its mental health impact are; widespread grief due to loss of Aboriginal culture, cultural identity, and land through the history of colonialism, the ongoing removal of children and the unresolved trauma of the stolen generation, high levels of incarceration and deaths in custody, and lack of support structures and funding for mental health services throughout regional Australia. All of these factors have led to discrimination and marginalisation, lower life expectancy, long-term despair, high suicide rates, substance abuse, lack of economic opportunities and a lack of social connectedness with a sense of belonging.
There have been 432 Black deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. No police perpetrator has been brought to justice in Australia, and few of the 339 recommendations of the royal commission have been implemented.
Increased levels of anger, despair, and resignation in the face of injustice may be directly responsible for many of the mental health problems we see in the Australian Indigenous community today. In the words of David Dungay Jnr, a proud Dunghutti warrior and poet sedated and held down by police as he cried, "I can't breathe" over the space of nine minutes, died tragically in custody in 2015 at the age of 26;
"They do not care
Well, that is how it seems
And they take away our hopes and dreams
And until the day we're out and free
This is how our life's to be" (David Dungay Jnr, 2020)
The question is not if the mental health of Indigenous Australians is impacted by inequality, but rather how could it not be shaped by the daily experience of it?