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The Sufferings of a Stolen Generation

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‘THE SUFFERINGS OF A STOLEN GENERATION’

‘Given the history of the European colonisation of Australia, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are wary of white institutions and social welfare’ (Chenoweth & McAuliffe 2012, p.274). Identify and discuss one or two of the historical events that have impacted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and how the effects can be seen today.

This paper aims to discuss how the assimilation policy and forced separation of Indigenous children from their families and culture has affected the mental health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. A significant undertone of the assimilation policy is racial discrimination (Haebich 2001), which is an additional theme explored in this discussion. Racial discrimination is built on a belief of superiority that one race is better than the other (Khalafzai 2009, p.10), which is relevant to the actions of the assimilation policy; the Aboriginal culture was devalued and considered barbaric and inappropriate to the modern colonist nation (Haebich 2001). Victims of the forced separation suffered severe psychological consequences (Petchkovsky et al. 2004), which to this day, haunt and affect the lives of many Indigenous Australians (Koolmatrie & Williams 2000). Furthermore, remnants of the past are still seen present time, through the discriminating treatment of Indigenous Australians, adversely impacting on their health, mentally and physically (Khalafzai 2009, pp.10-11).

The forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families derived from an underlying racist judgment that Aboriginal culture was ‘inappropriate’ to the colonial attitude (Haebich 2001, pp.75-76). Aboriginal families were denigrated and deemed to be ‘bad environments’, neglecting the children’s welfare and teaching immoral and destructive behaviour (Haebich 2001, p.76). The Indigenous race was devalued and considered barbaric and irrelevant to the modern European settlers (Haebich 2001, p.75), which ‘according’ to the colonial mindset, required significant improvement and rescuing; the British settlers simply believed that their race and modern lifestyle was superior to the habitual Indigenous ways (Armitage 1995). Assimilation policies were enforced, primarily aiming to abolish and breed out the Aboriginal culture (HREOC 1997; Robinson & Paten 2008, p.501). These policies resulted in displacement, removal of children, institutionalisation and discrimination (Browne-Yung, Ziersch, Baum & Gallaher 2013, p.21). Aboriginal children were targeted, as they were considered to be more controllable, amenable and susceptible to assimilation than Aboriginal adults (Robinson & Paten 2008, p.502).

It is argued that the forced removal of children was ‘in their best interests’ (Atkinson 2005, p.76) and while there may have been some beneficial intent initially, the removed children suffered inhumane and discriminatory mistreatment once placed in out-of-home care (HREOC 1997). Majority of the Aboriginal children were placed into government institutions, while others were adopted or fostered by white families (Silburn, Zubrick, Lawrence, Mitrou et al. 2006, p.10). The living conditions in the institutions were often very harsh and controlled (HREOC 1997). Aboriginal children experienced contempt and denigration of their Aboriginality; they were not permitted to speak their languages and many were told that their families had rejected them or that their families were dead (HREOC 1997). Any cultural expression from the children was punished and censored with brutal beatings (Petchkovsky et al. 2004, p.2). A significant number of the children separated from their families reported experiencing emotional, physical and sexual abuse (HREOC 1997) which was predominantly perpetrated by staff or the older children (Atkinson 2005, p.82). Breaches of regulations and statutory obligations left many children malnourished, ill-clothed and poorly educated (Atkinson 2005, p.74).

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people subjected to the forced separation and assimilation policies suffered severe psychological consequences (Petchkovsky et al. 2004), which significantly contributes to their poor mental health today (Koolmatrie & Williams 2000, p.158). Many indigenous people suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is caused from ‘exposure to a threatening event/s (threatened death or serious injury, or physical integrity of self or other). Response must be intense fear, helplessness or horror’ (Petchkovsky et al. 2004, p.4). As discussed, many Aboriginal children were victims of severe punishment, abuse and violence causing them to fear for their lives, which likely resulted in the development PTSD (Petchkovsky et al. 2004). The Aboriginal culture was continuously denigrated and discriminated, creating feelings of shame and humiliation amongst the Indigenous people (HREOC 1997). Many Aboriginals speak of their strong sense of not belonging to either the Indigenous or non-Indigenous community, directly causing feelings of alienation and trust issues (HREOC 1997). Several studies also report and focus on the high rates of depression and anxiety among people who experienced forcible removal in childhood (HREOC 1997; Koolmatrie & Williams 2000 & Petchkovsky et al. 2004).

Aboriginal children were taken away at any age, many within days of their birth (HREOC 1997), which had significant effects on the child’s development (Bowlby 1951; HREOC 1997). Attachment in infancy benefits the child in several aspects of their development such as: achieving full intellectual potential, attaining cultural identity, developing future relationships, coping with stress and frustration and handling fear and worry (Swan 1988, p.4). Evidence has shown that disruption to the process of attachment at this stage of development is the most damaging (HREOC 1997). It has been identified that infant separation from the primary carer, disrupted parenting and institutionalisation is connected to a variety of psychiatric disorders in adolescence and adulthood, ranging from anxiety and depression to psychopathic personalities (Bowlby 1951; Wolkind & Rutter 1984, p.34). These instabilities at such a young age rendered many Indigenous people less secure, and more vulnerable to psychological and emotional disturbances in adulthood, as well as hindering their ability to trust others (HREOC 1997). As most removed children were denied the experience of being parented or cared for by someone to whom they were attached, they were unable to be effective and successful parents themselves (HREOC 1997), which consequently affected the development of their children also.

Evidence has shown that unresolved grief and trauma have also been inherited by subsequent generations (HREOC 1997). Children of depressed or mentally ill parents are at significant risk of developing greater levels of anxiety, depressive symptoms and mental illness than those of non-depressed parents (Silverman 1989). Low self-esteem and self-confidence, feelings of inadequacy, despair and hopelessness, social withdrawal, chronic fatigue or tiredness and difficulty in thinking and concentrating are additional psychological distresses common amongst Aboriginals in today’s society (Petchkovsky et al. 2004, p.9). The predominance of psychological issues amongst Aboriginal families influences the high rates of self-harm and suicides, while others rely on the use of drugs and alcohol to mask their personal pain and suffering (HREOC 1997; Atkinson 2005).

The discriminating acts that took place in the preceding years have ignorantly passed into present time, having adverse impacts on Indigenous Australians mental and physical health (Khalafzai 2009, p.11; Haebich 2001, p.76). Australia has a long history of racial discrimination inflicted on Aboriginal people due to the colonial enterprise (Haebich 2001, p.75). This discrimination is still seen today, as Aboriginals still receive reduced and/or unequal access to health resources and care (Paradies, Harris & Anderson 2008, p.9). When compared to non-Indigenous patients that required the same medical needs, Indigenous patients were one-third less likely to receive the appropriate medical care across all conditions (Cunningham 2002). Aboriginals are also reported to be of high risk of racially motivated physical and sexual assault (Paradies, Harris & Anderson 2008, p.9). Racial discrimination is significantly associated with a number of adverse mental and physical health outcomes such as, stress, depression and anxiety, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, low birth weight and high morbidity and mortality rates (Khalafzai 2009, p.10).

Many Aboriginal Australians respond negatively to the discriminatory and racist treatment, often relying on health damaging coping behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse (Zierch, Gallaher, Baum & Bently 2011). Unfortunately, there are numerous non-Indigenous Australians who are oblivious to the history and cruel treatment of Aboriginals (Haebich 2001, p.76), simply assuming that all Aboriginals are ‘reckless’ and ‘drunken’, negatively stereotyping and judging them, unaware of the underlying motives behind their behaviour (Ziersch, Gallaher, Baum & Bently 2011). Racial discrimination also affects major social issues which consequently impact Aboriginal health (Khalafzai 2009, p.10). These social issues include: low literacy rates, low income, high unemployment rates, incarceration, substandard housing and high prevalence of substance abuse, all of which are contributing factors to morbidity and mortality (Khalafzai 2009, p.10).

To conclude, this paper explored the impact of the assimilation policy and forced separation of Indigenous children from their families and culture. The effects of these events proved to have significant impact on the psychological and physical wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Stemming from a racist belief that one race was better than the other; the European Colonisation saw strenuous efforts to eradicate the Aboriginal culture through cruel, discriminatory and immoral movements. The removed children, now known to us as the ‘Stolen Generation’ suffered severe psychological damage, which has followed them through their childhood, adolescent and adult lives, having an impact on their children and their grandchildren. Today, through the ignorance of non-Indigenous Australians, racial discrimination is still amid our westernised society, seeing unequal treatment and narrow-minded attitudes towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Indigenous Australians had their childhood, their families, their culture and their identity taken away from them, and they have unfairly suffered ever since.

Word count: 1,476

Reference list:

Armitage, A 1995, Comparing the policy of Aboriginal assimilation: Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, UBC Press, Vancouver

Atkinson, R 2005, ‘Denial and loss: the removal of Indigenous Australian children from their families and culture’, Queensland University of Technology Law and Justice Journal, vol.5, no.1, pp. 71-88

Bowlby, J 1951, Maternal care and mental health: a report prepared on behalf of the World Health Organization as a contribution to the United Nations programme for the welfare of homeless children, World Health Organization, Geneva

Browne-Yung, K, Ziersch, A, Baum, F & Gallaher, G 2013, ‘Aboriginal Australians’ experience of social capital and its relevance to health and wellbeing in urban settings’, Social Science & Medicine, vol.97, pp.20-28

Cunningham, J. 2002, ‘Diagnostic and Therapeutic Procedures among Australian Hospital Patients Identified as Indigenous’, Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 176, no. 2, pp. 58–62

Haebich, A 2001, ‘Between knowing and not knowing: Public knowledge of the Stolen Generations’, Aboriginal History, vol.25, no.22, pp.70-90

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) 1997, Bringing them home: report of the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, HREOC, Canberra.

Khalafzai, RU 2009, ‘Racial discrimination and health’, Chisholm Health Ethics Bulletin, vol.14, no.3, pp.9-12

Koolmatrie, J & Williams, R 2000, ‘Unresolved grief and the removal of Indigenous Australian children’, Australian Psychologist, vol.35, no.2, pp.158-166

Paradies, Y, Harris, R & Anderson, I 2008, The impact of racism on indigenous health in Australia and Aotearoa: towards a research agenda, Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, Australia

Petchkovsky, L, Roque, CS, Jurra, RN & Butler, S 2004, ‘Indigenous maps of subjectivity and attacks on linking: Forced separation and it psychiatric sequelae in Australia’s Stolen Generation’, Australian e-Journal for the Advancement of Mental Health, vol.3, no.3, pp.113-128

Robinson, S & Paten, J 2008, ‘The question of genocide and Indigenous child removal: the colonial Australian context’, Journal of Genocide Research, vol.10, no.4, pp.501-518

Silburn, SR, Zubrick, SR, Lawrence, DM, Mitrou, FG, Demaio, JA, Blair, E, et al 2006, 'The Intergenerational Effects of Forced Separation on the Social and Emotional Wellbeing of Aboriginal Children and Young People', Family Matters, no. 75, pp. 10-17.

Silverman, M 1989, `Children of Psychiatrically Ill Parents: A Prevention Perspective', Hospital and Community Psychiatry, vol. 40, no. 12, p. 1259

Swan, P 1988, `200 Years of unfinished business', Aboriginal Health Worker Journal, vol.12, no.4, pp. 29-40.

Wolkind, S & Rutter, M 1984 `Separation, loss and family relationships', in M Rutter & L Hersov (eds), Child and adolescent psychiatry: Modern approaches, 2nd edition, Blackwell Scientific Publications, London, pages 34-57.

Ziersch, AM, Gallaher, G, Baum, F & Bentley, M 2011, ‘Responding to racism: Insights on how racism can damage health from an urban study of Australian Aboriginal people’, Social Science & Medicine, vol.73, no.7, pp.1045-1053

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