By Dr Christine Gillies MAPS. Private practice, Wollongong

Discussion at the Bicultural Issues Forum at the 2006 joint APS/NZPsS Conference highlighted the importance of Institutional Safety when working with Indigenous peoples. The ground breaking efforts of the APS in adopting reconciliation strategies and other Indigenous-focused strategies over the last decade are fully acknowledged and applauded; however, a fundamental understanding arising from postcolonial studies must also be acknowledged: all powerful social institutions in postcolonial societies transmit dominant cultural norms and values that facilitate the ongoing colonisation process, at great cost to Indigenous aspirations and health.

In Australia, Indigenous people have been subjected to institutionalised abuses of power. Within the living memory of Indigenous adults, attacks on Indigenous family life, work placement, access to personally owned wages, legal redress and inheritance were legally enacted, publicly condoned and importantly, implemented on a day-to-day basis by professionals working in our most respected social institutions – church welfare, law enforcement/justice, education, secular welfare and medical/mental health services.

The professionals involved may have thought they were being helpful and doing their best within the system, but this did not stop Indigenous people suffering because of their interventions. The National Enquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997) intimated that past workers participated in a deliberate assimilationist attempt to ‘breed out’ Indigenous people and culture, which the Royal Commission classified as a genocidal action under International Human Rights Law criteria. As a result, many Indigenous people remain very suspicious and even fearful when they meet professionals wanting to ‘help’ them.

Today, official government policy is to encourage
self-management for Indigenous people, but this is rarely practised. Mountains of well-documented reports and proposals to address Indigenous health and social problems, supported by Indigenous communities, have been ignored. Over the past 25 years the difference in median age at death between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations has increased in Australia (i.e. 26 years) but fallen in Canada, USA, and Aotearoa/NZ due to reform. In addition, it is estimated that in Australia only 74 cents per capita is spent on Indigenous health services for each $1 per capita spent on non-Indigenous services, despite politically based claims to the contrary (Ring & Brown, 2002). As a result of the failure to truly implement self-management policy, assimilationist pressure and institutional indifference continue to endanger Indigenous people’s psychological and physical health by activating schema underlying complex multilayered syndromes: Cultural Bereavement (Eisenbruch, 1991), Acculturative Stress (Westerman, 2004), and Trans-generational Abuse (Atkinson, 2000).

One question non-Indigenous psychologists offering services to Indigenous people for the first time may be asked, possibly in a very strident manner is: Where were you and your profession when they were taking our children? By endorsing the Australia Council of Social Services Statement of Apology and Commitment to the Stolen Generation (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997), the APS publicly acknowledged that as a profession we should have done better during the period of ‘overt’ child removal. However, greater transparency is needed with regard to exactly how psychologists were involved, how psychological theory may have directly or inadvertently played a part in the practice of child removal, and the extent to which this is ongoing.

To achieve Institutional Safety there needs to be a recognition that the good will of psychologists will not be sufficient to override the strongly assimilationist forces and systems-level abusing practices still alive in many institutions that employ psychologists and regulate their work environments.

Psychologists need to approach service provision in a cautious manner, cognisant of Indigenous persons’ rights (Draft Declaration on the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples [UN, 1993]), perceptions of treatment imperatives and conceptualisation of mental health. As well as becoming culturally competent as individuals, psychologists need to develop practical strategies to combat assimilationist pressures imposed by administrative structures and abusive systems, and consider negotiating accountability agreements between service providers and Indigenous communities (See: Robertson, 1999).

In particular, there must be clear methods for reviewing all services to Indigenous children to prevent sole use of Western techniques that risk perpetuating assimilationist objectives, cultural genocidal and covert methods of child removal (e.g., in parenting programs, juvenile justice assessments, placement assessments etc). Practitioners are expected to ‘do no harm’, and to comply with human rights and ethical standards. To achieve this there is a need for institutional backing for culturally safe practitioners attempting reform in their workplaces, and a transparent review of our Institutional Safety Practices in cooperation with Indigenous psychologists and communities.

Dramatic increase in Indigenous birth rates necessitates immediate action if we are to be able to respond positively when asked in the future: Where were you and your profession when the Indigenous youth of early 2000’s were being negatively impacted by contact with mainstream institutions?


Atkinson, J. (2001). Trauma trails, recreating song lines: the transgenerational effects of trauma in Indigenous Australia.

Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) (1997). Australia Council of Social Services Statement of Apology and Commitment to the Stolen Generation.

Eisenbruch, M. (1991) From post-traumatic stress disorder to cultural bereavement: diagnosis of Southeast Asian refugees. Social Science and Medicine, 33, 673–680.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1997). Bring them Home. Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.

Robertson, N.R. (Ed). (1999). Maori and psychology: research and practice. Proceedings of a symposium sponsored by the Maori and Psychology Research Unit, University of Waikato. Hamilton, N.Z.: Department of Psychology.

Ring, I., & Brown, N. (2002) Indigenous Health: chronically inadequate response to damning statistics. Medical Journal of Australia. 177, 629-631.

United Nations Commission on Human Rights (23 August 1993), The Draft Declaration on the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Westerman, T.G. (2004). Models of Intervention: incorporating traditional with westernised models of service delivery. Armidale, NSW, June.