Mental Health First Aid Australia is committed to improving the mental health and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across Australia, and to equipping individuals and communities with the skills to provide culturally informed care to those experiencing mental health problems or crises.
In recognition of this year’s NAIDOC Week theme “For our Elders”, we sat down with Aunty Florence Onus to hear her story as an Elder and survivor of the Stolen Generation.
In telling her story, Aunty Florence shared the impacts of intergenerational trauma on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – and how initiatives and solutions like healing centres, education and cultural awareness training are helping to close the gap on the higher rates of mental illness and suicide experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Impacts of intergenerational trauma
Aunty Florence knows firsthand the impact that the Stolen Generation has had on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, families and communities. Forcibly removed from her family home in 1965 at age 5, she was sent to a local orphanage and raised in foster care that, like many others, resulted in significant loss, grief and intergenerational trauma.
“Every Aboriginal family across this nation has been impacted by the Stolen Generation and the protection policies of the early 1900s through to the mid-1970s when the policy of the removal of children was abolished,” Florence explains.
The significant loss of land, culture and family that resulted from the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children has had far-reaching impacts, from poverty and homelessness to unemployment and alcohol and substance abuse.
“That trauma and experience has been handed down from generation to generation, because we know now that trauma is inherited. Most Aboriginal families throughout this country, within our large extended families, are still dealing with these impacts.”
These impacts are seen through the disadvantages still experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. In addition to having significantly lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous Australians and representing one of the world’s most incarcerated populations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have one of the highest rates of suicide in the country.
Suicide accounts for 5.3% of all deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, compared to 1.8% of non-Indigenous Australians. When looking at suicide rates per 100,000, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people die by suicide at more than twice the rate of non-Indigenous people.
This stark comparison represents an urgent need to address Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health, and ensure access to culturally informed and appropriate mental health supports when it matters most.
Closing the gap on mental illness and suicide rates
Aunty Florence, like many others, is working hard to ensure her trauma isn’t passed down to her children and grandchildren. Initiatives driven by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are working to end the cycle of intergenerational trauma and to close the gap on the disproportionate rate of mental illness and suicide that they experience.
Aunty Florence points to healing centres and hubs across the country as a key step toward the collective healing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Having previously served as Chairperson of the Inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation, she understands the importance of cultural and western therapy in helping to aid healing through connection to family, culture, Country and self – as well as building capacity through education, training and cultural awareness.
Evidence-based training to provide culturally informed support
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health First Aid program is one initiative helping to bring education, training and cultural awareness into families, communities and workplaces across the country.
Lynette Anderson, Senior Indigenous Advisor at Mental Health First Aid Australia and proud Waanyi woman, says: “Mental Health First Aid Australia has long understood not only the importance of mental health education to well-being, but has also understand that it is critical for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and well-being to be viewed with a cultural lens”.
For the past 16 years, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health First Aid program has sought to address the high rates of mental health problems and suicide amongst our First Nations population. It equips people with the skills, knowledge and confidence to recognise, understand and respond to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander adult experiencing a mental health problem or mental health crisis.
Aunty Florence says that this training is very important – “particularly for our mob”.
“We are living and dealing with our mob with mental health problems and trauma every day. We need to equip our people [with the skills to] identify the early [warning] signs, understand what’s happening, [understand] what support is available, and know how to access it.”
Instructors delivering the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health First Aid courses are all First Nations Australians passionate about improving mental health outcomes. This requirement allows the Instructors to draw on their own unique and instrumental local cultural knowledge, which assists to further enrich the content and enable culturally informed and safe delivery to all Australians.
For Aunty Florence, courses like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health First Aid that are developed for and by our First Nations people are a step in the right direction.
“We can continue to heal the pain, and the intergenerational trauma, to reduce the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dealing with mental health right around the nation.”
Find out more about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health First Aid courses available:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander MFHA
- Youth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander MFHA
- Talking about Suicide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander MFHA
- Talking about Non-Suicidal Self-Injury Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander MHFA
About Aunty Florence Onus
Florence Onus is a Birrigubba, Bidjara and Jagalingu woman from North and Central Queensland.
She is a survivor of the Stolen Generation and was the Chairperson of the Inaugural Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation and the Stolen Generations Reference Committee.
Florence also sat on the Indigenous Mental Health Advisory Group to the Federal Health Minister and had input into the National Health Plan roadmap to Closing the Gap.
As a Stolen Generation survivor Florence is invited by primary and secondary colleges to share her lived experience with students. Florence also facilitates workshops on Cultural Safety, Cultural Awareness and Trauma Informed Practice to the workforce from diverse sectors from a strength-based approach to empower staff and encourage their growth individually and professionally.
Florence’s professional career spans four decades working in community services and government sectors and aspires to apply integrity in every area of her life.