Issue 25 / 4 July 2016

RESEARCH on the psychological impact of the Stolen Generation is urgently needed to better inform mental health care provision, but funding is not the only big barrier to achieving this, say experts.

Dr Kym Rae, director of the Gomeroi Gaaynggal Centre at the University of Newcastle, told MJA InSight that while the calls for more studies have been around for a long time, “there is still so much denial about the Stolen Generations”.

She said this gap in our knowledge would persist “until the Australia government really says ‘yes, this happened’, and agrees that we need to support programs in this space”.

Dr Rae co-authored an editorial on research published in the MJA which looked at psychological distress in carers of Aboriginal children in New South Wales.

The research authors used data collected from phase one of the Study of Environment on Aboriginal Resilience and Child Health (SEARCH) from 2007 to 2011. 

A total of 589 parents and carers of Aboriginal children were recruited when attending one of the four Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHS) in urban New South Wales participating in SEARCH.

The overall aim of SEARCH is to describe and investigate factors associated with health and illness in urban Aboriginal children aged 0-17 years who attend ACCHSs, as well as in their parents and caregivers.

The authors found high levels of psychological distress in 18% of the carer group. The factors more strongly associated with distress were health-related functional limitations, previous hospitalisation for mental health problems, low satisfaction with feeling part of the community, and low involvement in clubs and groups.

The authors said their study highlighted the key areas for action in improving social and emotional wellbeing of the parents and carers of Aboriginal children.

“Increased funding that allows ACCHSs to provide mental health services, together with funding and promoting programs and activities that increase social connectedness, should remain focuses for ACCHSs and policy makers,” the researchers wrote.

In her editorial on the paper, Dr Rae said the researchers did not find any correlation between the carer themselves having been removed and currently high distress levels, but this may be due to the small study size.

Lead author of the research, Dr Anna Williamson, director of the Centre for Informing Policy in Health with Evidence from Research at the Sax Institute, agreed, saying that the number of SEARCH carers who reported having been removed from their families was too small to allow a meaningful analysis of the impact of removal on carer distress. 

“Thus the lack of association between carers reporting having been removed from their families and psychological distress in our study should in no way be taken to mean that such removal does not impact on psychological distress in adulthood,” she told MJA InSight.

Dr Rae said there needed to be a robust and well-funded research strategy into the psychological impact of the Stolen Generations.

“This isn’t just for the people from the Stolen Generations, but subsequent generations who feel they’ve lost their cultural connections as a result.”

However, Dr Rae recognised that there is also “such discomfort among Indigenous people about being researched and carers equally feel that discomfort in talking about mental health”.

“They are concerned about the impact that will have on their relationship with the child, or that the child could even be removed [from their care].”

Dr Rae said that one cause of the scarcity of research was the lack of Aboriginal mental health workers. If these numbers are increased, much more research could be done on Indigenous mental health.

Dr Williamson said there were also only limited data that tracked changes in social and emotional wellbeing over time, which would allow researchers to pinpoint the predictors of a person getting better or worse.

Another research gap was in testing strategies to effectively prevent or treat this distress. “We need to know what works, and what does not, so policies and programs can be appropriately directed,” Dr Williamson said.

“SEARCH is an active partnership between Aboriginal community controlled health services and researchers that is designed to produce data that can address some of these information gaps.”

Indigenous health researcher Professor Sandra Eades, from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, and a co-author of the study, told MJA InSight that it is essential that mental health services for Aboriginal people are provided in “a culturally safe environment that overcomes the fear parents have of being labelled poor parents and having their children removed”.

Dr Rae said that the most important place to first establish this cultural safety was within the acute care setting.

“We need to ensure that acute care settings are welcoming for Aboriginal people and we do this by training and employing Indigenous staff.”

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7 thoughts on “Stolen Generation “denial” a problem

  1. Greg Hockings says:

    What about the current “Abused Generation” of indigenous children who have been left in remote communities at the mercy of alcoholic and violent parents? Why should they not be rescued from their terrible plight? Answer: because 20 or 30 years from now, we wouyld have another “Stolen Generation” seeking compensation and apologies from their rescuers. Some people, regardless of the colour of their skin or their ethnic backghround, are completely unfit to be parents, yet “civilized” society remains unwilling to protect the children by removing them to places of safety.

  2. Brenda Coughlan says:

    Why is the focus on indigenous mothers – what about non indigenous mothers who are part of the stolen white generation – National Parliamentary apologies 21.3.2013 – no different to indigenous – suicides within non indigenous mothers is extremely high – so why only indigenous mothers – bordering on white racism – inequality and discrimination


  3. bryan tanney says:

    as a follwup, we have theABS data this week on homicides in aboriginal mothers.

    here is the nub; “More than third of homicides linked to domestic violence: ABS data”. so more real evidence that the issue is within the culture itself, and not the ‘evil’ white folk.

    Yes i am taking a polemical position. But I am not a Stolen Generation “Denier”.  I simply ask for us to look at the evidence that we have available to help form our opinions –and  inform our actions.


  4. Glenn Rosendahl says:

    A nurse who had worked for over 20 years in a remote Aboriginal settlement more than 100 Km distant from Alice Springs (by air) expressed to me the view that a significant proportion of the ‘stolen generation’ could thank their ‘captors’ for their existence.  They would have been the ones that had died had they been left with their mothers in their indigenous environment.  The death rate of children growing up in settlements at that time was very high.  (It is still higher than in urban, even rural, ‘white’ Australian communities.)

    I was flying out to remote Aboriginal settlements from Alice Springs, at the time.

  5. Dr David De Leacy says:

    With all due respect to Ms Rae but didn’t our Prime Minister Rudd stand on the floor of the Australian Parliament and affirm exactly what she wanted to be acknowledged and also apologised for the appalling historical treatment of our native people. Whilst not denying in any way the wider community’s genuine concern or indeed Dr Williamson’s for aboriginal health and wellbeing, would she please explain to me how SEARCH can be in an active partnership relationship so as to develop some data from their reseach program to address information gaps and still expect to be called an independent and objective research organisation. One is left feeling that the Null Hypothesis has been turned on its head and that they have virtually defined exactly what research bias is by their stated practice.


  6. bryan tanney says:

    “the researchers did not find any correlation between the carer themselves having been removed and currently high distress level”.

    So why is the rest of the piece about the impact of “Stolen Generation” on carers?


    Yes, I accept the usual disclaimers about these results, but they have to stand as reported.

    It seems apparent that there are agendas galore operating  here?

    Do I also have an agenda? Of course.  But i make it clear.  The “Stolen Generation” saved a generation from domestic violence, incest and child abuse–and the known mental health consequences.. There was a quid pro quo. The issue is to decide where the balance lies. 

  7. Ray Taylor says:

    While I agree indigenous children may have been removed unjustlly in individual cases, I believe it is also true some were genuinely rescued from potential death or ill-treatment.

    Certainly not all suffered from the removal. As a child and in my early teens  I knew a family who had adopted an indigenous girl who was about 10 years older than me. She got a University education in the 1950s, and eventually married an engineer. They moved to Canada for his work shortly thereafter.

    There is a tendency in the community for people to polarise over such issues and form into groups of “Believers” and “Deniers”, rather like in the area of religion. The truth in my view is usually somewhere in the middle.

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