University of Wollongong academic to steer First Nations trauma program

"Evidence shows us that the processes of colonisation, with the loss of land, identity, family, layers into compound trauma - and what we're finding as evidence is compound trauma rolls into physical and psychological problems,": Debra Hocking

Brianna Parkins Illawarra Mercury 9 January 2015

Indigenous health experts gathered at University of Wollongong this week to introduce an Indigenous trauma recovery program developed at Harvard University

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Indigenous trauma recovery planning

Harvard Professor of Psychiatry Richard Mollica selected University of Wollongong's Debra Hocking to co-ordinate Australia's version of the program.

The program aims to help health, welfare and law professionals understand the long-term effects of colonial trauma on Indigenous communities.

"Evidence shows us that the processes of colonisation, with the loss of land, identity, family, layers into compound trauma and what we're finding as evidence is compound trauma rolls into physical and psychological problems," Ms Hocking said.

"What we're saying to health professionals is before you reach for the script, listen to the story first, even if a person visits for headaches you need understand that it could be from something underneath."

The program's creators hope that a greater understanding of compound trauma will aid law enforcement officers working in Indigenous communities.

"In terms of the police it's helpful for them when they're dealing with an aggravated person to know why that person is so angry," Ms Hocking said.

One of Australia's first Indigenous medical graduates Dr Ngiare Brown said over her 20 years of practice she had witnessed the effect of Indigenous trauma on community health.

"We have evidence linking chronic disease to childhood trauma, adults have a 30 per cent more chance of developing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer from experiencing early childhood trauma," she said.

"We know those early childhood experiences affect the way that you grow, learn and if we can stop trauma right there; you are far more likely to have an amazing life and greater potential."

The group has a week to put a first-of-its-kind curriculum together and interest from other countries has already started pouring in before the project's completion.

"We knew what we wanted to put in from the start so we were ready to go," Ms Hocking said.

"We've got interest from as far as Brazil and we've designed it so it can be used for other colonised countries like Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea."

The curriculum is designed to be confronting, with Ms Hocking justifying the hard-hitting material as essential to addressing trauma issues.

"We're really going to hit the hard stuff and not shy away," she said. "We need to inform the health professionals of statistics like how many nine-year-olds are suiciding in the Northern Territory; they need to understand that it really is that bad."


Trauma-informed services and trauma-specific care for Indigenous Australian children By Judy Atkinson, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW)

While many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian children grow up in safe homes and live in safe communities, there are some who do not. In the case of Indigenous children, some families and communities are unable to, or are still working to, heal the trauma of past events, including displacement from Country, institutionalisation and abuse. The Stolen Generations also represent a significant cause of trauma. In 2008, an estimated 8% of Indigenous people aged 15 and over reported being removed from their natural family and 38% had relatives who had been removed from their natural family. This trauma can pass to children (inter-generational trauma).

Indigenous children may also experience a range of distressing life events including illness and accidents, hospitalisation or death of close family members, exposure to violence, family disintegration (with kin networks fragmented due to forced removals, relationship breakdown and possibly incarceration) and financial stress.

Experiencing trauma in childhood can have severe and long-lasting effects; effects that can be overcome by appropriate interventions. This resource sheet examines these effects and explores how they can be tackled. It focuses on the design and delivery of trauma-informed and trauma-specific children’s services and care.

 Closing the Gap, Clearing House - Research Sheet by Judy Atkinson
Trauma-informed services and trauma-specific care