Racism a major risk factor for Aboriginal Victorians’ health

Some 97 per cent of recently surveyed Aboriginal Victorians had experienced racism in the previous 12 months, with repeated exposure to racism a risk factor for high levels of psychological distress, according to research supported by the Lowitja Institute.

These findings are included in a report, Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities, which was launched by Dr Helen Szoke, the Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner, at Congress Lowitja on 14 November 2012.

Helen Szoke, Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner, launches the report at Congress Lowitja, 14 November 2012. Photo by James Henry

Helen Szoke, Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner, launches the report at
Congress Lowitja, 14 November 2012. Photo by James Henry

Dr Szoke congratulated the Institute and its research partners the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and Beyond Blue for taking the lead ‘in this difficult area of research’, and urged other Australian jurisdictions to follow Victoria’s lead. The launch also generated significant media interest, with articles appearing in The Koori Mail, The Age and Australian newspapers and reports on SBS television news and on ABC radio.

The research formed part of a larger Victorian Health Promotion Foundation program called Localities Embracing and Accepting Diversity (LEAD), which is designed to trial new community interventions to tackle racism in Victorian communities. A total of 755 Aboriginal Victorians were surveyed in two rural and two metropolitan areas of Victoria between 2011 and 2012.

Although race-based teasing, jokes or stereotypes were the most common form of racism experienced by survey respondents, more than half had had their property vandalised, been spat at or been physically assaulted in a race-based attack.

According to the report, racist acts ‘were most commonly experienced in shops (67%) and public spaces (59%), but many Aboriginal Victorians also encountered racism while in education and employment, at sports events, on public transport or engaging with justice and housing services’.

The survey included a five-question psychological distress test known as the Kessler Scale, which showed that two-thirds of those who experienced 12 or more incidents of racism reported high or very high psychological distress scores.

‘Some types of racism seemed to be more harmful than others regardless of how frequently they occurred,’ the report says. ‘For example, people who had property damaged or were left out or avoided because of their race were significantly more likely to experience high or very high levels of psychological distress than others.’

With the links between poorer physical and mental health and self-reported perceptions or experiences of racism well documented by previous research, the report finds there is ‘strong evidence that the targets of racism are at greater risk of developing a range of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression’.

Although Aboriginal respondents used a variety of coping strategies to deal with racism, such as ignoring it, confronting it, using humour to deflect it or ‘just putting up with it’, the report concludes that organisational and community interventions are needed to reduce racism.

Lowitja Institute Chairperson, Ms Pat Anderson, said the research ‘confirms what we already know about the connection between the social and emotional effects of racism and its direct influence on mental health and wellbeing’.

‘Racist attitudes and beliefs have consequences and can create long-term harm for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,’ she said. ‘People can’t thrive if they feel excluded.’

The research was undertaken by Associate Professor Yin Paradies (Deakin University), and Ms Angeline Ferdinand and Associate Professor Margaret Kelaher (both from the University of Melbourne). A PDF of the research report is available from Lowitja Publishing.

Also see project page for more information: Understanding and addressing racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians through the LEAD program

From Wangka Pulka newsletter, issue 8, December 2012.   
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Created: 18 December 2012 - Updated: 02 February 2016