PTSD And Its Impacts In Aboriginal Australia


We often associate PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, with soldiers returning from combat, but in fact it can develop and be experienced by anybody who has been through a traumatic event. It’s just now that the general public is starting to realise that PTSD isn’t just a ‘war condition’, but a life condition. Over the years those living with PTSD have struggled for recognition, helped partly by the fact that they knew what they faced, and how they may begin to combat it. Imagine then, an entire group of people suffering PTSD across generations who do not have a good understanding of their condition, and who are unsure of how to tackle it.

Such is the reality of Aboriginal Australia.

A survey from 2008 indicated that almost one-in-three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults have “experienced high levels of psychological distress” [1]. This is more than twice the rate that was reported for non-Indigenous Australians at the same time.

In more than two centuries Indigenous Australians have suffered at the hands of colonists, missionaries and politicians, all sure they were doing ‘the right thing’. They have been subjected to “unprecedented levels of political, social, economic, environmental and physical violence” [2].

As Paul Keating said in the Redfern Address:

“It was we who did the dispossessing.
We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.
We brought the diseases. The alcohol.
We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice.
And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.” [3]

Massacres, exclusion, colonial law and white privilege have left Aboriginal people broken, and dealing with the effects of PTSD not just as individuals, but in an intergenerational way. We’re talking about more than the psychological trauma of an individual, which is a challenge of itself, but the trauma that runs across generations, referred to by Atkinson as trauma lines:

“These trauma lines show the increase of so-called mental illness, alcohol and drug misuse, sexual and physical abuses and suicide attempts that reflect the pain of people’s lived experiences today.” [4]

Now we have two options in looking forward to a future Australia, where equality is a foundational right, not just a political catchword. Either go the way policymakers currently lean, seeing Aboriginal people as a failed group, or we see deeper than that, and recognise the long-term effects that PTSD can have on physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Currently, Australian politicians and those charged with protecting Aboriginal welfare have failed to apply what we know about PTSD to Aboriginal Australia. Our denial is hubris, but it’s not us that we’re failing: it’s Aboriginal people. This denial is one of the primary reasons that many programs specifically targeting First Australians aren’t getting results. It’s why schooling programs, mental health programs, wellbeing programs, and many other ‘closing the gap’ initiatives are doomed from the get-go. Essentially, it’s the real life version of forcing square pegs in round holes.

It’s Only Getting Worse

Unfortunately for Aboriginal people, intergenerational PTSD isn’t something that goes away with time. In fact, with each generation of people the issues faced are worse and worse, the trauma lines run deeper, and it’s hard to see a way forward. As older generations work to fight their demons, they are often caught up in substance abuse [5], leading to newer generations suffering with conditions like foetal alcohol which further adds to the trauma. We’re in a cycle that has to be broken, and now is the time.

What Can Be Done

The intergenerational trauma suffered by Aboriginal people isn’t something that white Australia can fix, and that’s probably the biggest hurdle for us to accept. Like so many other times in the past, we feel that we were the answer, but the truth is that the answer has lain with Aboriginal people from the beginning.

It is only Aboriginal people who can heal the wounds of the past, because we simply can’t understand the trauma that has been suffered by them, individually and as a group, for the last two centuries. We cannot understand the blatant murder and massacre of their ancestors, the denial of their cultural identity, the removal of their children, the separation of families, and the crushing of their spirit. It is a trauma that white Australia wants to wipe from the history books, because we are that guilty. But as Keating said, “guilt is not a very constructive emotion”, only opening our hearts and embracing practical solutions will net the future we hope to have for our great nation.

It’s time to stand up and accept that white Australia has done a number on Aboriginal Australia, but it’s not too late. It will take years for us to overcome the past, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to reach for the future.

[1] Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, 2013,
[2] Havemann, P. Denial of Modernity and Exclusion: Indigenous Placelessness in Australia, Macquarie Law Journal, 2005; 5:57-79
[3] Keating, P. 1992. Redfern Address – Year for the World’s Indigenous People.
[4] Atkinson, J. Making sense of the senseless: feeling bad, being mad, getting charged up. Problematic Drug and Alcohol Use and Mental Illness. Conference Proceeding, 1999; 37-49.
[5] Nadew, G. T., 2010. Exposure to Traumatic Events, Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Alcohol Abuse in Aboriginal Communities, Primary Health Care Research and Information Studies.

Why Are We Still Talking About A Treaty?



In May of 1967 Australians went to the ballots in a referendum to amend the constitution and include Aboriginal people in the census and allow laws to be created for them by the Commonwealth.

In May of 2017, Aboriginal leaders gathered again on culturally significant ground in Uluru, 500km from Alice Springs with a clear goal: to be recognised legally as the First Australians though inclusion in the legal framework on which modern Australian is based, and to be truly heard through an elected representative body.

The 2017 National Constitutional Convention brought together Aboriginal people from all over Australia. They met for days of talks about the current state of Aboriginal Australians and their hopes for the future. What emerged was something they called the Makarrata Commission, announced in the Uluru Statement.

“We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.

We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.” [1]

Constitutional reform that will involve getting a First Nations voice in parliament and moving towards a treaty is on the agenda for Aboriginal leaders. While we welcome further discussions and actions on a treaty, we remain surprised that after decades of poor Government policies and promises there remains any doubt at all that a treaty is absolutely necessary. Australia is the only Commonwealth nation that does not have a treaty with its Indigenous people, and frankly that’s not good enough [2]. We agree that Aboriginal people are “voiceless and powerless” as Pat Anderson notes, and that there does need to be “substantiative change; structural change that will make a difference” [3].

Touching On UNDRIP

In 2007 a meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The declaration was adopted by a majority of 144 states, with four – including Australia – standing against it [4]. A new Australian government went on to adopt the declaration in 2009 [5], with the then Indigenous Affairs minister Jenny Macklin saying the adoption was an important step towards closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is something that was 20 years in the making. The declaration was intended to set out basic standards relating to the protection and recognition for Indigenous people all over the world. It talks about their rights, including the right to land, resources, identity, freedom from discrimination, culture, traditions, language and self-determination [6].

When Australia refused to adopt the UNDRIP in 2007, the government of the time – led by John Howard – claimed that UNDRIP would risk raising Aboriginal traditional law over national law. This was despite the fact that UNDRIP is not a binding document, but rather a promise that nations make to work harder to improve the lives of their Indigenous people through policy and action. As Mick Dodson, the 2009 Australian of the Year put so succinctly:

“Human rights do not dispossess people. Human rights do not marginalise people. Human rights do not cause their poverty and they don’t cause the gaps in the life expectancy and other life outcomes. It is the denial of rights that is the largest contributor to these things. The value of human rights is not in their existence; it is in their implementation.” [7]

Addressing Structural Issues In Australia’s System

The reason we want to talk about UNDRIP is because, while the document is not legally binding, any treaty that is negotiated between the Australian government and the First Australians must represent the values contained within this document. UNDRIP should be considered the fundamental scaffolding on which any future treaty may be build.

We fully support a treaty and believe that one is long overdue, but understand there are some Australians still in denial. If you don’t believe there needs to be a treaty, consider this:

The entire system – from legal to social and economic – on which Australia stands is based on a lie. That lie is that Aboriginal people did not exist in Australia at the time of white settlement. That lie is that they had no structure, no significance and no value, meaning settlers were free to dispossess them in total ignorance of the most basic fundamentals of British law. Now that needs to be resolved.

Australia needs to understand that you cannot own something that you have stolen. It must always belong to those who possessed if first. Of course, now it’s much too complicated to simply give Australian land back to Aboriginal people. There are so many other things to consider, from ownership to past traumas. As a country, such an action would result in social and financial collapse, which is why a negotiated settlement must occur.

A treaty is, and always has been, the best way to accomplish this kind of settlement. It allows Australia to acknowledge the constitutional rights of our Indigenous peoples, and the importance they have and will continue to have in our cultural heritage. It allows these people to have a voice, a say in their future and control of their destiny and that of their descendants. Yes, there needs to be some kind of body that speaks for Aboriginal Australians in all matters effecting sovereignty, land and so on, but it cannot give away the fundamental right of non-Indigenous Australians to exist.

Any treaty that is negotiated needs to be undertaken respectfully, and with an open heart. This isn’t about winning and losing, it’s about securing a bright future for all Australians, and moving forward with a better respect and understanding of the immense value and importance of Aboriginal culture and heritage to all of our lives.



[1] Sovereign Union – First Nations Asserting Sovereignty, ‘Uluru Statement from the heart’, 2017,
[2] Australians Together, ‘Why Treaty’,
[3] ABC Q&A On Twitter, Pat Anderson,
[4] Indigenous Law Bulletin, ‘The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, 2007,
[5] Rodgers, E, ABC News, ‘Aust adopts UN Indigenous Declaration’,
[6] Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘UN Declaration on the Rights Of Indigenous Peoples’,
[7] Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, ‘Aboriginals of Australia: Government Praised’,

So, Noel Pearson Swore?

Picture from Nick Cubbin

Picture from Nick Cubbin

In the matter of the recently reported ‘tirade’ between Noel Pearson and our honourable Prime Minister by the ABC News on Monday, here are a few of our thoughts.

First off, we certainly don’t condone the actions of Noel Pearson. Whether you agree with someone’s view or not, it is important to remain respectful. That said, we are sympathetic to the feelings of an Indigenous man driven to improve the current and future circumstances of his people who comes up against the brick wall of politics. The First Australians have not only been traumatised and driven into the ground by myriad governments and their failed policies, but also shelved and ignored at every possibly opportunity. The actions of governments, past and present, have shown quite clearly how little they care for community-driven action that may yield actual results. Instead our policy-makers trade laws between elections like playing cards and any positive outcomes get lost in the quagmire of administration and opposition.

It’s enough to drive anyone quite mad.

So, we certainly understand what might have driven the, as yet unsubstantiated, claims that Noel Pearson dropped a few choice insults at the PM and some others present. The mission to which Pearson has dedicated himself involves seeking inclusion in the Australian Constitution of an Aboriginal representative body. It is proposed this body will actively scrutinise legislation to ensure its full impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is well considered. As we understand it, the Prime Minister said in few uncertain terms that, while he meant no insult, the pragmatist within suggested that Noel’s model was “highly unlikely to be supported”.

There is obviously a marked divide between what Aboriginal people want to achieve in terms of constitutional recognition, and what the Australian government is willing to give ground over. As it stands, Aboriginal people want more control over their future, and the future of their children, and the Australian government wants to stick with old ideas and white gatekeepers (because god-forbid we let Aboriginal self-determination come into the equation).

Are We Being Distracted?

It is also worth noting that the alleged tirade reported by the ABC on Monday the 5th of June actually took place quite some time earlier. And by some time, we mean late November of last year. In this case we feel there may be something sinister at play in the ABC’s report. Can it really be coincidence that they seek to pull the carpet out from under Noel Pearson’s feet as he, one of the well-recognised faces and public orators of the recently ground-breaking convention in Uluru, speaks for his people? We don’t believe it is, and it’s frustrating that the media seeks to confuse the public, drag down the reputation of Indigenous leaders, particularly with claims that barely stand on their own two feet.

Allow us to explain. For one, the ABC report offers no direct quote from anyone actually present at the meeting to substantiate the claims of Noel Pearson’s tirade. Instead they print a few groundless statements from Liberal MP, and known Pearson critic, Warren Entsch who claims to have heard what happened from “witnesses who were there”. Labor MP Linda Burney, herself a well-respected Aboriginal leader, admits two men present told her that an exchange of words took place. She herself wasn’t present”. This game of whispers is underhanded, and frankly quite disturbing.

The End Game

At the end of the day, we can’t say for sure what happened in a private meeting between the PM, Noel Pearson, and other Indigenous leaders. Perhaps a tirade really did take place all the way back in November, but there’s no saying now what is truth and what is a media beat-up. With dignity, and perhaps understanding, the other participants have chosen to act honourably.

What’s important to us, and to all the people in our communities near and far, is that the ultimate message and mission of Noel Pearson and other Aboriginal leaders doesn’t get lost in the media distraction. Tirade aside, this is an exciting time for Aboriginal people, and for Aboriginal leadership. There is a thought revolution happening all across Australia, and we welcome it. Now is the time to stand together in realising that the only way for Aboriginal people to move forward is with strong self-determination and governance, not junk policy and overarching control. Instead of choosing to tear down a great Australian, with a true passion for his First Australian heritage, let us practice some forgiveness and honour also.