“The gifts of learning and healing – your way and my way” with Elaine Tiparui

When elders speak, we sit up and take notice.  My guest today on Talk the Walk is someone I have listened to throughout my working career on the Tiwi Islands.  In fact, I’m proud to call her my mentor.   Elaine Tiparui is an Elder of Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island.  Elaine has a long history of helping her people, beginning with the Alcoholics Anonymous movement in the 1980’s, training and working as an Aboriginal health worker and many years volunteering her time for non-government organisations delivering alcohol and drug programs, child and family counselling and support services.

I set out to explore two things in this conversation; firstly Elaine’s experience of working alongside non-indigenous social workers and counsellors and what advice she might have for new people entering remote communities, and secondly, Elaine’s knowledge in relation to the healing power of the bush.  I am a real advocate for social workers incorporating Indigenous knowledge and skills into social work interventions and therapeutic plans.  While I have been able to incorporate some of this knowledge into healing bush camps and individual client sessions, there is so much more potential with proper funding and support.

I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did, reflecting on a ten year working relationship and the things we’ve learned from each other along the way.   It has been my biggest highlight and great privilege to co-create the Healing Our Children project with Elaine.  Communication with Aboriginal people whose first language is not English is never easy, so I’m grateful to Elaine for sticking with me during this conversation in my native tongue.  Apologies also for the cacophony of community sounds in the background!

In this episode, we explore:

  • Why Elaine chose to work alongside mainstream non-government organisations in her community
  • The history of the Wurrumiyanga community on the Tiwi Islands and Elaine’s experience of growing up in the Catholic Mission
  • What social workers and counsellors need to be mindful of when entering a remote community for the first time
  • the reciprocal benefits of co-working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge
  • Elaine’s gift of introducing new workers to the culture, healing traditions and a spiritual way of understanding the Tiwi people
  • Elaine’s view of the skills and knowledge of non-Indigenous workers as a gift of healing for the Tiwi people
  • Self determination and what this means for non-Indigenous workers coming into a remote community
  • How non-Indigenous workers can build trust and respect in a new community
  • Why ‘going out bush’ is the best form of intervention for many of the health and wellbeing issues affecting children, adults or families
  • Elaine teaching her grandson to find yams

    Elaine’s stories of healing children and families out bush through teaching, hunting and bush medicine

  • The gift of listening and feeling trees that Elaine inherited from her ancestors, and the messages trees are communicating to us
  • The healing power of the bush in healing, mourning and celebration ceremonies, and recovery from emotional hurt and mental health issues
  • Elaine’s story as a witness to a healing ceremony for a Tiwi girl who had been removed as a baby and reunited with Tiwi family; a collaboration between Child Protection, an NGO and the strong women

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‘Black and White Working Together for Strong Community’ with Patricia Munkara

Patricia Munkara – an advocate for children in her community

My guest on ‘Talk the Walk’ this week is Patricia Munkara.  Patricia is a traditional woman from Bathurst Island in the Northern Territory whose first language is Tiwi.  In our conversation, Patricia takes us into her world – giving us some insight into what it is like for an Aboriginal worker living in their community to work alongside non-Indigenous social workers/counsellors, some of whom have been on fly-in fly-out arrangements. Bringing her passion for children’s safety and protection, Patricia has developed a reputation of being a trusted community member in her role of Aboriginal Support Worker with a mainstream non-government organisation.

This episode explores:

  • how Patricia has been a role model for others in her community
  • how Patricia has worked alongside the counsellor in the delivery of a culturally sensitive model of therapy
  • what a typical ‘two-way’ approach to counselling looks like; and the skills, knowledge and tools used
  • advantages of having an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal mix of counselling and support in the room with children
  • some of the challenges of the work
  • collaboration between the counsellor and Aboriginal Support Worker
  • the importance of valuing and including cultural practices, knowledge and values in the work
  • how employment and maintaining a status in the community as a carer for children has contributed to Patricia’s own health and wellbeing
  • a success story of reunification with a young Tiwi girl
  • the importance of flexibility in a challenging work environment
  • advice for new social workers in a remote community and what you can expect

As with any remote work, there were challenges with recording this episode.  We apologise for the varying quality of audio.  It’s something we are working on!
We hope you enjoy this episode.  If you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’ send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to check out after today’s episode:

Healing Our Children project

Healing Our Children on Facebook

Patricia’s 3 part series of child safety messages launched today!
‘Keeping Babies Safe from Harm’
‘Babies and Neglect’
‘Babies and Stress’

More about Patricia’s life and work on our blog

Just one day left to ‘Give Aboriginal Kids a Voice’

Cassie and other Aboriginal Support Workers use various ‘talking tools’ in their work to assist clients accessing the community Safe House.

A month ago I set out with a goal of getting my new book out to as many remote communities as I could, so that Aboriginal children might be better placed to speak up about their experience of domestic and family violence.

This week, as I revisited my hopes and intentions to achieve this goal, I wondered whether Aboriginal Support Workers in Safe Houses across the Northern Territory would also be able to see the benefits of using this simple resource with their clients.

This week I tracked down one such worker in Cassie Daniels who works at Milikapiti Safe House on the Tiwi Islands. Sharing a digital copy of ‘The Life of Tree’ with her, I was delighted to hear of her excitement that this resource would be heading her way very soon.

Cassie revealed that it had really got her thinking about how this book might be used to assist children and families that stay at the Safe House.  As well as with individual clients, Cassie sees the potential for using the story with weekly women’s groups and at community events that focus on family and domestic violence.  She says

I love the pictures.  It’s easy to see the pictures and talk about them relating to their self experience”.

In considering how Safe House workers might put extra supports in place for children who have been exposed to domestic or family violence, Cassie goes on to say that this book will be a source of reassurance.

Older women in the community who have the wisdom and knowledge of history that’s in line with this book [will] give hope to children who are experiencing storms at home; [knowing] that they do have roots that are strong in their identity [and] through other family to help.”

If you would like to empower other Aboriginal women in their communities to help children talk about their experience of domestic and family violence and get the help they need to stay safe, then head over to our crowdfunding page.

There’s just 24 hours to go to ‘Give Aboriginal Kids a Voice’.

Thanks for your support.

Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice – Part II

Bloopers captured in time on our crowdfunding campaign video

This blog goes out on the cusp of the release of my first children’s therapeutic picture book.  Nerves aside, it’s been an exciting but hectic week as Christine and I prepare for media interviews.  We’ve also been busy creating a crowdfunding campaign to get the community on board with our hopes for the book.  We are new to all this stuff, so of course there have been many laughs along the way (hence the blooper snapshot captured here while filming our campaign video).  If you really want to know what all the fuss is about, then maybe this Q&A might provide some answers.

What is the book about?

There are two characters in the book, a little boy called Jack and his friend Tree, who lives with his family (or other trees) in the bush.   I think the blurb on the back cover is a good summary of what happens in this story.

“Tree is living a peaceful life in the bush until a wild storm comes along and damages his environment.  His friend, Jack is worried that Tree won’t recover and be able to play with him again.  When Jack also lives through a wild storm in his home, he comes to realise just how strong they both really are.  Jack has strong cultural roots, just like Tree that brings hope and healing to his whole family.”

This story is really exploring the ‘storms of life’ that children go through and how this impacts on them.  It’s also a story of healing which comes through connection, culture and the support of family and community.

How did this story come to me?

The story was just slowing coming together in the back of my mind, mulling away there for a long time.  Then one day, I think I was in a day dream state and the idea just popped into my head.  I then went away and wrote it fairly quickly.  Often ideas come to me in my dreams day or night.

Book Cover

What are the aims of the book?  What are my intentions in writing it?

I think the book reflects what I am trying to do in my counselling work with children.  First, it’s about helping them find their voice and give words to the ‘problem story’ of their lives.  It’s also about making visible the ‘strong story’ of their lives – what is it that is keeping them going, stay safe and be happy.

I am hoping that the adults in children’s lives will use this book to give voice to the strong story of children’s lives and perhaps even document this.   This could include the skills, abilities, beliefs, values and knowledge the child has in coping and keeping themselves safe.

‘The Life of Tree’ is another resource that people can add to their tool box in their conversations with children.

Who is the book for?  Who would be interested in reading it?

This book is intended to be read by an adult to Aboriginal children who have been affected by trauma.

This book will appeal to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people care for, live or work with children who’ve experienced trauma such as domestic and family violence.  So this can include family members and foster carers as well as professionals such as counsellors, social workers, support workers or case workers.

 What inspired me to write the book?

 My biggest motivation is to help children tell their stories.  One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in my work with Aboriginal children, apart from the obvious cultural and gender barriers is gaining enough trust, for children to feel that it is OK to talk about the really tough stuff.  And that what they are feeling is normal.  Kids do feel sad and angry about violence in their families.  And it’s shame and fear that really hold them back from speaking up and healing from their experience.  So in order to gain trust we need to create a safe space for the conversation.

Another motivation is to provide a culturally safe tool for professionals.  ‘The Life of Tree’ uses images and themes that children can connect to because it reflects their own cultural traditions and beliefs.  Christine has done an amazing job bringing her artistic talents to this story.  I haven’t really found any other resources like this out there.

Of course, my favourite part is the use of metaphors because this has worked in other areas of my practice.  I’ve been practicing narrative therapy in my work with children for 8 years, with groups of children in remote communities as well as in individual counselling.  I have witnessed how the use of metaphors is effective in connecting with people and creating a safe space for conversation about difficulties in their lives.   Asking direct questions isn’t always going to work, but people seem to spontaneously want to share their own story, if they hear a story that is similar to theirs.

What initially got me interested in this topic?

10 years ago I arrived in the Northern Territory virtually green from university. The first 6 months working out bush as a drug and alcohol counsellor, I drank lots of tea and did a lot of listening.  I later moved into children’s counselling and I was hearing lots of stories from women Elders about their concerns for their children and grandchildren.  I guess, I’ve always been listening for ways I might be able to meet an expressed need – that’s what community development is all about.  If there is some way I can walk alongside communities to find solutions to the problems in their communities, then there is a place for me there.  Along the journey I’ve found myself more and more in the healing space, finding ways of bring healing to people’s lives.

When is the book being released?  How can people buy it?

The book was released on Wednesday 1st March 2017.  You can access further information and a Sneak Peak of pages from the book from my online Shop.  There you’ll also find a downloadable Order Form.

 What about people who can’t afford to buy the book?

We are officially launching a crowd-funding campaign on Tuesday to raise money to send free books to communities.  Christine and I would like to put donated books into all the women’s refuges in remote communities of the NT, WA and Queensland.  We are both aware that the support for children coming into remote safe houses is pretty limited.  ‘The Life of Tree’ is one way, that Aboriginal workers in those services could engage children and directly support them.

So if there is anyone out there who would like to sponsor a book, they can look up our campaign ‘Giving Aboriginal Kids a Voice’

Christine with ‘The Life Of Tree’

The Greatest Tragedy of All Happens in my Street

The easy access of my local 'bottlo' contributes to the tragedy unfolding in my neighbourhood.

The easy access of my local ‘bottlo’ contributes to the greatest tragedy of all unfolding in my neighbourhood.

Over the past few weeks as the wet season has taken hold in the Top End, an increasing number of homeless Aboriginal people (called long grassers) are on the move.  The bus shelter across the road from our house has become a shelter, a mere stumble from our local handy-store which freely sells alcohol.  This is the site where arguments break out just after 10am daily about who is paying for the grog or the taxi, women yell profanities at their men at the tops of their voices and beer bottles are smashed on the road.  Since the Country Liberal party decided to scrap the ‘Banned Drinking Register’ 3 years ago these scenes have become all too common again.  On the weekend, my husband had to stand at the end of our driveway to motion for cars to slow down, as a man lay on the middle of the road after going biffo with another intoxicated family member.

The greatest tragedy is not that the police showed up half an hour after I called, enough time for someone to lose their life.  Nor is it that there are people passed out on the footpath day after day and how sad it all seems to be living a life like that.  The greatest tragedy is that there is most often a small child in a pusher or clutching on to their mother watching all this.

Don’t get me wrong.  All of it is extremely disturbing and very upsetting to hear and see on a daily basis.  But I can’t help imagining that this child’s future is being laid down right this very minute in front of my very eyes.

Unfortunately I don’t see an end to the drinking and antisocial behaviour in the near future.  Despite the introduction of mandatory treatment of people who break the law while drinking, the trauma, the hurt, the pain remains and the drinking continues.  I despair thinking it is too late for this generation who have most likely grown up in violence or abuse themselves.

We can change the future for the children.

But the children.  That is a different matter.  Here we have an opportunity to make a real difference.  To change things for them.  To put a stop to the cycle.

This is where I have great faith in the work of the Healing Our Children project.  The power of the project lies in working with Aboriginal women who are caring for young children to understand the impact that witnessing violence has on the developing brain in pregnancy and infancy.  It is my hope that women will be in a more empowered position to make good choices on behalf of their children.  A conscious and fully-informed decision between staying and putting up with the abuse or leaving to find a safe place, could make all the difference to the life of an accompanying child.

As I sit and stare outside my window to that babe in arms, I feel paralysed knowing there’s nothing I can do at this very moment.  I am also full of determination and hope that we can prevent this tragedy affecting the next generation.

For more information about my work with the Healing Our Children project visit Relationships Australia.

It’s about healing too, not just therapy

Tiwi women and the traditional healing smoking ceremony

Tiwi women and the traditional healing smoking ceremony

The past month has been a very exciting one as the Healing Our Children (HOC) program starts to finally spread its message across the Tiwi Islands.  For me, the program represents best culturally-safe, social work practice by combining scientific knowledge from the Western World with Aboriginal worldviews, cultural traditions and healing knowledge.  Neither is prefaced as being superior to the other, with both adding value to the theme of prevention and healing from trauma.  The resources we have developed represent four years of consultation with Elders about the best ways of engaging Aboriginal women in the communities we work.

The smoking ceremony is one traditional practice that is very important in Tiwi culture to promote healing.  That is why a healing activity or ceremony has been built into the groupwork program.   The smoking ceremony offers a space for mums and their children (if present) a place to heal and Elders to be empowered in leadership of this traditional practice.

On our first HOC bush camp, I had the opportunity to interview Molly Munkara, an Elder from Wurrumiyanga, to share insight into the spiritual significance of the smoking ceremony.

Molly Munkara

Molly Munkara

“Long time ago, Tiwi people used smoking ceremony as part of their ritual.  Healing is part of our traditional culture.  The smoking ceremony….it cleanses our mind…and heart.”

Molly says she was only 4 or 5 when she was taught about the smoking ceremony.

“We learnt that from our grandparents…our ancestors.  They handed down that smoking ceremony to our parents.  I was joining in, looking, participating in what they do.”

Molly shared the significance of the ceremony at sorry time.

“When a person passes away, it’s in-laws of the deceased person that prepares the smoking ceremony and the Elders too.  We have a meeting, discussion first.  And they talk to the families about it, when it is going to happen…

They send a message around the smoking ceremony is happening on that particular day.  And they gather round.  Families or anybody who have connected to that person’s life [can participate].”

On this night, I witnessed a smoking ceremony with a different purpose – healing of the self in mind, body and spirit.  The Elders began by calling out to the spirit ancestors for keeping us safe, instructions for the children on what to do, a song and prayer from the Catholic tradition.  After the leaves of the bloodwood tree were set alight, crackling under the heat, Elders used small bunches bathed in smoke to swipe the shoulders and head of those being blessed.

Bloodwood leaves for smoking

Bloodwood leaves for smoking

“We’re going to gather around the smoking ceremony to heal our spirit… purify our minds and cleanse our bad spirit away.  Bring the good spirit inside us.”

“A couple of ladies will do the smoking, they build up the fire and put their leaves in the drum, and then when they are ready, they will call.  We will walk through the smoke.”

I wondered allowed whether Molly had any particular thoughts in her mind during the ceremony.

“We think about things that are not right in our lives.  And we’ll throw that away with the smoke.   And then we think about new life after that, new beginnings.  What are we going to do that’s really good for us and our lives. We do get some [messages] from elders, what they want us to do.  Like get a better life.  Try not to fall into that same bad cycle, that goes around.  Try to get out of it.  And then start to form a new life, good life.  So we can be happy and in good health. Feeling great about myself.  We really need to love ourselves too.  And treat ourselves with respect.”

Preparing the fire

Preparing the fire

Molly reflected on how the smoking ceremony has been healing for her own life.

“The smoking ceremony has helped me a lot in my mind and heart, physically and emotionally.   [Physically], it helps you, in what you do [not with illness or disease].  Like going out with family, spending time with them, going out hunting with the Elders, gathering, singing and joining in any other activities.”

It’s an honour and privilege to be invited onto traditional country to not only allow us to run our program but also be invited to participate in traditional healing practices such as the smoking ceremony.

For anyone practising social work in Indigenous communities, I encourage you to think about the sort of traditional knowledge and practices that can be respectfully acknowledged and built into your program.  Too often I hear about cultural practices that are dying out or lost forever.  Many of these offer opportunities for Aboriginal people to help themselves.

Our work should be about healing too, not just therapy.

Reconnecting with the Hopes and Intentions we have for our Children

20160421_140355The Rings of Growth is an art activity included in the first session of the Healing Our Children group-work program with women on the Tiwi Islands.  In this session, the women are introduced to the metaphor of a tree as a way of reflecting on and talking about their own lives.

In our training with Tiwi workers we used the Life of a Tree video to show how each ring of the tree represents one year of growth.  These rings can reveal years of hardship (such as lack of water), years of rapid growth (usually during our wet season) and other unforeseen events like insect damage, fire or even crowding out by other sun-loving trees.   Although these rings may be invisible to us, the scars from these tough times are always there.   The Rings of growth is a metaphor that can be used to think about the long term impacts of domestic and family violence on children.  We cannot see inside a child, therefore we cannot assume they haven’t been affected.  It can also be used to explore the influence that positive early childhood experiences have on children’s long term growth and development.  This is the purpose through which we invite Tiwi women to document their own Rings of Growth and share hopes they have for their own children’s future.

This activity invites the women to draw the inside of a tree as if it was cut across the middle and each of the rings of life were exposed.  The women are asked to think about what they were doing when they were a child and the memories they have about what other people did that made them feel good inside, safe and loved.  These things, however small, are the things that helped them grow up and be strong.  For each ring of the tree they have drawn, the women write or draw a memory of something that made them feel loved, safe and comfortable for each year of their childhood.  This can include special events, favourite activities, special people in their lives, significant words said to them, important lessons they learned  or stories they were told by Elders and family members.  The women need at least 30 minutes on this activity to draw, colour, chat and share stories with each other.  After there has been sufficient time to document significant memories and knowledge, the women are invited to explore what their drawing might tell them about hopes they have for the future of their children.

Women whose childhood experiences were largely pleasant, memorable and positive, usually have similar hopes and intentions for their children’s lives.   For those that are struggling in their parenting, it can be a positive way of getting back in touch with hopes that have been lost along the way.   Those women with an unpleasant memory may use the opportunity to explore what positive message or learning they have taken from their experience.  They may reflect on how they want things to be different or better for their children than what they had experienced.  Remembering and recommitting to these intentions within the support of a group, can move women to action in positive ways with their children.

In my experience, women have enjoyed making connections between their early childhood experiences with their own development into adulthood.  Recently, one woman traced back her strong interest in natural remedies to her memory of being thrown in a big copper pot by her grandmother and being treated with bush medicine for chicken pox.   Another first learnt to sew in school and is now actively involved in a women’s cooperative doing screen printing on fabric and making a variety of articles as her work for the dole activity.  Yet another remembers her dad teaching her the rituals of the Kulama ceremony and is now instrumental in keeping this tradition alive with her grandchildren.

Metaphors have the power to be transforming and insightful.  The learnings that women have taken away from this very simple exercise have been delightfully surprising.  The potential is unlimited for adaptation for different client groups and contexts of work.

 

2016 – It will be a Shining Year (if i have anything to do with it)

IMG_20160116_165221And so it is with trepidation and determination that I sat down in January and planned out my year ahead.   But I didn’t want to do it just any old way.  It had to be what Sark would call a wild succulent process – one that would make me want to follow through on the goals I set.  So I ordered myself a gorgeous diary and journal to create myself a shining year.  During the mapping process, I came to appreciate what a unique position I am in.  I currently hold down two jobs – the first as a Project Worker has been in the making for many years through my experience working on the Tiwi Islands – the other, a new environment counselling children and families in a mainly mainstream setting.   If you have ever held down two intensive part time jobs that demand your energy and your passion in completely different ways, then you’ll know what a challenging task it is to change hats mid week.

Of course all these responsibilities has meant that the work of Metaphorically Speaking as a private practice has been put on hold for now.  Well sort of.  You see I’ve set myself another goal this year too.  To finally self publish a children’s book that’s been in the making for the last few years.   This dream grew out of my work as a children’s counsellor on the Tiwi Islands and NE Arnhemland.   I have noticed that primary school aged Aboriginal boys had real difficulty talking about domestic violence in their families and community.  Often shame was so great that they were silenced or too traumatised to speak about their experience.   Gender and cultural barriers also provided extra challenges.  Much of my work focused on using non verbal methods of communication such as drawing, clay or drumming to help boys express themselves.   I also came to appreciate the power of metaphors to help children talk about their lives in safe ways through groupwork on family healing bush camps using the Tree of Life methodology.   The Elders enthusiastically took up narrative practice ideas that drew on storytelling traditions focusing on strengths, hope and resilience.  Seeing how well these ideas worked in community has inspired me to use similar metaphors to reach out to children, who are silenced by their experience of violence.  My goal in writing this book is for counsellors, therapists and even mums and dads to have a way of giving children a voice to their experience by lifting the veil of shame and self blame.   I also believe the book values the strengths of culture in keeping children safe and strong.  I feel privileged to be working with Christine Burrawunga in making this book a reality, with Christine turning her amazing artistic talents into the role of illustrator.  As is so much a part of my practice, this project will be a two way learning experience and genuine partnership.   I look forward to working together with Christine over the next few weeks to begin dreaming and scheming the images to accompany the text.  This is a journey neither of us have been on before.

2016 is also an exciting time, as I near closer to starting our very first support group on the Tiwi Islands for pregnant women or women with young children who are living with or at risk of trauma from violence.   This project is a long time in the making, and has come about through funding made available through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy to Relationships Australia.   Last year, my focus rested on training local women in Wurrumiyanga to be group facilitators and peer mentors to participants using the talking tool called It Takes A Forest to Raise a Tree.  This resource is something I have developed alongside Elders in the community beginning in 2010, after they expressed worries about their grandchildren and the difficulty of connecting with their parents, they described as the lost generation.  Finally, the tool will be out there hitting the ground where it is most needed.

Meanwhile in 2016 I will also be starting some new work in Child Inclusive Practice in my counselling role at Anglicare Resolve.  This requires new learning and new approaches for working with children whose parents are separated, as well as getting my head around the family law system, how it operates and how it impacts on families and children.

So there’s lots of work ahead.  It’s daunting.  It’s exciting.  It’s gonna be a shining year.

For more information about my work on the Tiwi Islands, you can contact me at Relationships Australia NT.  To access my culturally safe counselling services for children and families in Darwin, contact Anglicare NT Resolve.  To get a copy of my children’s picture book, stay tuned.

If you Believe Hard Enough, Dreams Really Do Come True

IMG_8367

Healing Our Children will engage with women and their children at risk of trauma

Show me the money!   Yes, you may have heard that my last ditch attempt to secure funding for the Healing Our Children program was successful.  This has been a program in the making with community Elders and strong Aboriginal women since 2010.  After submitting nine grant applications last year, I’d resigned myself to the fact that in the current political and economic climate, no government was interested in investing in an early intervention and trauma prevention program.  Especially one that does not have a tested and trialled evidence base yet.  I assumed that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet would be the least likely to fund this initiative.  And wouldn’t you know it – boom!   For me the announcement was bittersweet – what followed in the media was outrage expressed by Aboriginal organisations including essential domestic violence and legal services, about the amount of funding lost causing closures and job losses across Australia.  Fair enough.  Initially, this was also hard for me to come to terms with.  But I have since justified the decision to fund my program for the following reasons:

  • I have a unique opportunity to demonstrate that bottom-up, community led programs DO work (rather than the usual top down government programs)
  • It IS possible for non-government organisations to work together with Aboriginal communities in a mutually respectful way to meet the expressed needs of communities and still achieve outcomes
  • There are no Aboriginal organisations that I am aware of that are proposing to do the same work. But this is something we can aspire to in the future.
  • I am in the UNIQUE position of working together within established relationships of trust with Elders and Strong women to share the latest findings from brain science about the impact of trauma on children.  Many vulnerable women in the Western world don’t have this knowledge, let alone Aboriginal women and children who are most vulnerable to harm. Research has started to show that this information is a powerful motivator for women leaving a domestic violence relationship.
  • I REALLY believe this program is the first step in stopping the cycle of intergenerational trauma beginning with the Aboriginal children being conceived and born right now.
Nami with children in Yirrkala (playgroup)

Engaging young children and their caregivers in the Early Years is so important

I have just returned from the Child Inclusive Practice Forum in Brisbane where Nathan Mikaere Wallis, a Maori ‘pracademic’ and educator presented the latest findings from neuroscience.  The results are well and truly in.  Whilst we have known over the last two decades of the importance of ‘the first three years of life’ in determining your life chances, the literature has refined this to ‘the first 1000 days’.  This takes into account the beginning of life when the brain is starting to form within two weeks of conception.  And while we have had many arguments over those years about whether nature or nurture is more important in determining one’s health and wellbeing in adulthood, brain science is now showing, it is “how nature interacts with nurture” that is paramount.  Unlike animals who do not have a frontal cortex – the thinking and decision-making part of our brain – humans are designed to be moulded by the environment they encounter in the first 1000 days. It is in this stage of life when the brain is gathering all the data it needs to determine whether you go to university, earn a high income and have a successful marriage OR misuse drugs and alcohol, go to jail or abuse your children. The key determining factor of life experience is attunement, determined by the quality of the dyadic relationship between the baby and the primary caregiver.   So if the Early Years are so important, why is it that we invest the least amount of money in this age group and the most at the high school and university end of the spectrum?

I am very excited about the opportunity I’ve been given.  This really is a unique opportunity to break the mould of traditional government investment to achieve a ‘better bang for our buck’ and ensure Aboriginal kids get the best possible start in life.  This seems like a much better economic proposition than finding more foster carers for the next stolen generation, sending adolescents to boot camp and building more jails, don’t you think?

Let the Tears and the Stories Flow:  Responding to Suicide in Aboriginal Communities

26052010(015)It is the phone call that every counsellor dreads to get.  Remember that girl you were working with a few years ago?  Well she committed suicide.  This is what happened to me this week.  It was like a punch in the stomach.  I was winded.  How could that possibly happen to such a beautiful soul who had bravely let me into her life, to confront the demons of her past? Unfortunately, this is a common scenario for remote Aboriginal communities.  Having to find a way to pick up the pieces and carry on, with so many unanswered questions and tears for their loved ones.  For Aboriginal people, the decision to end the hurt and pain is often made hastily, perhaps after an argument and in the heat of the moment.  It happens too quickly.  There are no plans made days in advance.  So if there is no one around in that split second, the chances of intervention are slim.

Aboriginal communities in Australia lose their young people to suicide at higher rates than every other country in the world, apart from Greenland.  So what can we do about this terrible statistic which leaves threatens to continue the legacy of intergerational trauma?

Well, I believe we have to start with the mothers who are pregnant right now.  If we can ensure little babies reach their third birthday without experiencing trauma (namely abuse or neglect, which includes witnessing domestic and family violence abuse) then their chances of growing up strong and healthy, physically, emotionally and spiritually are very high.  90% of a child’s brain has developed by then.  Every baby has the right to experience a caring, responsive and safe environment or “a social womb”.  Unfortunately, for the girl who left us this week, this wasn’t the case.  I clearly remember the one hope that she had for her future and her family.  To be safe.  For babies growing up in unsafe homes, they may not have any tangible memories as older children, but their brain and their body never forget.  The brain and body continue to work together in a state of constant alertness to danger, making it impossible for the child to relax, let alone conform to the expectations of society.

The latest neuroscience research supports the proposition that early childhood trauma is a risk factor for mental health issues later in life including self harm and suicide.  It is this research that has informed the work we’ve been doing over the last four years, developing trauma prevention tools for use with pregnant women and women with toddlers.  This program still remains unfunded.

In the meantime, a community is left grieving, yet again and I am left with feelings of helplessness.  Then I am reminded of the work of the Dulwich Centre when a spate of suicides in NE Arnhemland led to a project which documented the strengths and skills of Aboriginal communities in surviving hard times.  Some beautiful stories of ways communities support each other and honour their loves ones was documented.  It is in the power of community responses that this dreaded problem might once again be addressed.  For me, this is where the hope lies.  And women play a large role in it.

I decided to send a copy of the document “These Stories Are Like a Healing“ to the community in mourning this week.  I hope that it gives them strength to get through the next weeks, months and years ahead.  I hope that it reminds them of the incredible strengths, skills and knowledge that they have to respond in times like this.  Perhaps they have lost touch with these skills?  And a gentle reminder might empower them to find a way forward to prevent such a thing happening again.

I finish by sharing one of the stories that touched me from “These Stories Are Like A Healing”.  It helps to alleviate some of the helplessness and sadness I feel when I hear about the loss of an Aboriginal child or young person to suicide.

Dreams  

“Sometimes our loved ones visit us in our dreams. They tell us that they are all right now and they offer us comfort through their words and their touch. We don’t get frightened by this. We know they are caring for us. In this way, they still offer us comfort even though they are no longer here on earth.

Sometimes, if they regret things that they did, or how they died, they may even come back in a dream to apologise to their mother or father about what took place. These dreams can be very comforting. We also feel their presence during our waking hours. We feel them when we least expect it. Certain smells or sounds evoke them. Our loved ones remain with us. They walk with us in life.”

Beautiful huh?

References:  Dulwich Centre Foundation. (2006). These stories are like a healing, like a medicine. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Foundation.