One of Australias leading psychologists, Dr Tracy Westerman has spoken out on recent claims made about the wellbeing of Aboriginal people during the Voice debate, saying: “…trauma feeds trauma.”
Last week the federal opposition’s Indigenous Australians spokeswoman Jacinta Nampijinpa Price claimed colonisation has been good for Indigenous Australians.
But writing for Cosmos, Dr Westerman, of the Njamal people of the north west, Western Australia, and who has a 100% Indigenous client base, says: ”I can tell you, with twenty-five years of expertise – that the narrative that colonialism brought only “positive changes” for Aboriginal people isn’t misguided; it is dangerous.”
Westerman was the WA Australian of the Year in 2018, and runs Indigenous Psychological Services (IPS), a private company founded in 1998, which provides specialist mental health services for Aboriginal people. It is a private company which has never received government funding. In 2019 it self-funded an Indigenous Psychology Scholarship program and founded the charity, the Westerman Jilya Institute for Indigenous Mental Health, where she volunteers.
“I work in the prevention of Indigenous suicide and violence, counselling trauma survivors – and I’ve directly witnessed my clients regress in their therapy. Clients ripped from their families, I have had to hold while they sobbed. Each one is a human being. All of them with a consistent background of living with the legacy of colonialism’s forced removals of Aboriginal children from their families.
Science has long told us that forced removals from primary attachments is close to unrecoverable; but its denial compounds these impacts exponentially. Its sobering that the Kimberley has 100% of children in out-of-home care who are Indigenous and they also have had, for decades the highest rates of Indigenous suicide in Australia. The NT has 92% and, suicides are also amongst the world’s highest.
This is when science tells us something critical. Remove a child from a family those families never recover; those children never recover.
It’s also where collective race based trauma is badly understood.
Because from a biological, genetic and biological standpoint; trauma feeds trauma.
Price’s comments reveal a lack of comprehension regarding race mediated trauma; the ongoing impacts of colonialism; the conditions that enabled it and which continue; which have been linked not by anecdote, but by science.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is marked by survivors re-experiencing extreme forms of distress that last long after a traumatic event occurs.
The trauma of stolen children, forced relocation, stolen wages; educational exclusion resulting from colonisation have long term impacts, making PTSD a more prevalent diagnosis for Aboriginal people: because they exist as additional, race mediated trauma variables that increase the likelihood.
This erroneous idea that trauma is visible and obvious to others, just creates more stigma to those with trauma. Most people with PTSD ‘look functional’: it doesn’t mean they are not suffering; or their families aren’t.
Those with PTSD internalise and hide their symptoms well – this includes flashbacks; depression; substance abuse, impulse control, anger, and violence.
So if we are truly about prevention – given the link between PTSD and increased risk for contact with the justice system; child protection services, suicides; violence- trauma denial ensures we fail to address the root causes of it all.
When the default position is to deny Indigenous trauma,the evidence shows this compounds trauma rather than prevents it. That people with PTSD are not “tough enough to ‘snap out of it’”- for example.
Validating trauma does’t mean survivors will be caught in some “victim mentality” vortex they cannot extract themselves from.
When people have PTSD, they do not link behaviours (anger; flashbacks; depression, substance abuse) to trauma. Recognition and validation of trauma provides victims with the necessary insights to heal. It empowers and validates what victims have instinctually always known.
Without this, survivors can remain caught in a cycle of biologically hard-wired trauma behaviours known as ‘repetition compulsion’- the compulsion to repeat the patterns of their own trauma. It is not unusual for example for victims of violence to not realise they are victims years after leaving violent relationships. It’s a very common trauma dynamic.
It’s not ‘virtue signalling’. Not symbolism. It’s science.
In 25 years as a psychologist I have never known trauma validation to create ‘more trauma’; but trauma denial irrefutably does.
When Aboriginal leadership is promoting this idea, it becomes more widely endorsed because, it presents as coming from a ‘lived experience’ perspective.
Lived experience is extremely helpful when used to develop survivor insight. I often use my own lived experience to assist clients to normalize what feels abnormal; but it is damaging when it is used to discount the lived experience of trauma survivors.
Price’s address set off a flood of false equivalencies with people comparing their ‘lack of self-reported trauma” from having grandparents who came back from war and Warren Mundine arguing Holocaust survivors are all “fine”; so Aboriginal people should be as well.
While there is a false equivalency between war and racial persecution as ongoing inescapable trauma variables, there was also, ironically, the Royal Commission into Veteran Suicides released the day before Price’s address – showing, inconveniently, and consistent with decades of research that those coming back from war aren’t “doing fine”.
Add the mountain of research showing generational trauma of Holocaust survivors and a mountain similarly showing colonialised groups including Aboriginal people consistently have the poorest health, mental health, employment, and educational outcomes.
Evidence tells us, just that; with racism and discrimination accounting for at least 70% of trauma symptoms and 30% of depression and these responses, like trauma are biologically based, PTSD doesn’t just disappear by denying it.
Indigenous leadership rightly universally condemned these comments, but it also set off a conga line of media celebrating Price’s falsities as “brave.”
100% of my Aboriginal caseload, have multiple traumas. They all have a common background: their families were torn apart due to colonialist assimilation policies; racial exclusion and persecution. Many will never know their history because the removal was denied until the 2007 national apology (“done for their own good”); meaning there have been decades of survivors not understanding that they were experiencing trauma; that what they experienced was not something they should be ‘grateful for’.
Denying forced removal got us to where we are. It not only feeds a lack of trauma survivor insight but ensures these additional variables are not incorporated within standard trauma therapies.
To now have Indigenous leadership argue for a return to those policies that enabled it, is too dangerous not to challenge because trauma, for Aboriginal people, has always been inherently political…and from a trauma perspective that’s literally a survivor’s worst nightmare.
I had to personally think long and hard about challenging the words of Senator Price and Warren Mundine.
As Aboriginal people we are raised to never speak against another Aboriginal person.
However, we have fought too hard for equality to not be beyond critical challenge.
Any leadership should champion that; if it is truly ‘brave’’.”
Dr Tracy Westerman AM
Sept 27, 2023