ANU researchers represent at Indigenous health forum

(l-r) Mr Tim Stevenson, Dr Stewart Sutherland, Professor Christine Phillips, Professor Bruce Christensen, Ms Amanda Wingett, Dr Oliva Evans PRIDoC, psychology, medicine, Indigenous health, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, research Medical student Ms Jenny Mun First Nations culture on display in Vancouver. Totem poles.

Medicine and psychology researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) brought their expertise to the Pacific Region Indigenous Doctors Congress (PRIDoC) 2022.

The event is an Indigenous-led space, bringing together Indigenous clinicians, researchers, medical students and allies to discuss the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people and communities.

The week-long Congress was held on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, Vancouver, Canada.

Dr Stewart Sutherland, a Wiradjuri man was joined at the event by Ms Amanda Wingett, a Yawarrawarrka woman; Dr Olivia Evans, a Gomeroi woman; Professor Bruce Christensen; Professor Christine Phillips; and Doctor of Medicine and Surgery student Ms Jenny Mun.

For the non-Indigenous participants, the Congress offered many cultural learning opportunities.   

Professor Christensen was a first time attendee at the event and said “I had never witnessed a professional proceeding that did so much to integrate culture and ceremony. I felt privileged to be a part of the conference and for the exposure to these new learnings and experiences.”

“The integration between physical, mental and spiritual health at PRIDoC is an important example of the holistic lens central to Indigenous culture and perspective. This approach is also at the heart of the ANU School of Medicine and Psychology. The knowledge and culture of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait friends and colleagues will be enormously helpful as we discover new ways to integrate our research, and teaching,” Professor Christensen noted.

Ms Mun, a second year medical student in the Indigenous Health Stream said, “I was honoured to be part of this learning space. I became interested in Indigenous health through my experiences of racism and discrimination growing up as a Korean Australian. And although I cannot possibly compare my own struggles to be the same as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, I have a deep sense of connectedness with this issue. I have a responsibility to be an ally, knowing that I have benefited from a country built on hundreds of years of suffering, trauma and loss of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

It’s the second time the ANU has sent representatives to the biennial congress where ANU researchers delivered four in-person presentations, a panel discussion, and a video presentation.

Protective factors for mental health

Under the guidance of Dr Evans and Dr Sutherland, Ms Mun co-presented with Dr Evans on the impact the 2019/20 summer bushfires and the pandemic have had on the mental health of Indigenous people.

“We knew from our research that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experienced a high level of anxiety and depressive symptoms as a result of these events. For future disaster support, we were interested in understanding what factors might protect their emotional health, ” Ms Mun said.

“What we discovered is that the questionnaires we had used to try to determine their protective factors were not culturally appropriate. This work highlights the shortcomings of many psychology questionnaires that were designed for white participants living in modern Western societies,” Ms Mun explained.

Emotional distress caused by climate impact

Professor Christensen presented research by psychology Master student, Mr Bilal Reda, who he and Dr Sutherland supervise – discussing the emotional distress experienced by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people as a result of environmental degradation, also known as solastalgia.

The comparison of the two groups, using a scale that validly measures solastalgia among Aboriginal respondents, found that Indigenous people had significantly more solastalgia as a result of the 2019/2020 Australian bushfires. Moreover, these differences remained even after statistically controlling for differences across demographic and other mental health variables.

Although more research is needed to uncover why this is the case, Professor Christensen suggested that Indigenous people’s connection to country and the role the land plays in their emotional, cultural and spiritual lives, likely plays a role.

Pedagogy of discomfort

Dr Sutherland, Professor Christine Phillips and Ms Wingett presented their work on the Pedagogy of Discomfort, which analysed the dissonance experienced by students - and the repercussions faced by academics as a result of that dissonance – as students uncover the uncomfortable history that has led to current physical and health issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  

“The phenomenon of discomfort, which leads to misplaced emotional turmoil being directed towards academic staff, is faced by most medical schools teaching Indigenous health history. Ensuring there is enough time and sufficient processes in place to adequately support students through their discomfort, as well as providing adequate supports to teaching staff, is crucial.” Dr Sutherland explained.

ANU bushfire response

Dr Sutherland, Professor Christine Phillips and Mr Tim Stevenson (a Cree man representing the NSW Aboriginal Land Council) were also involved in a presentation that highlighted their work, and that of their colleagues, on the ANU Bushfire Response. Working with the Mogo Council, the five-year project investigates the health of the environment and waterways around Mogo after the devastating bushfires in early 2020, as well as the mental health of the Mogo Aboriginal community.

“Sampling of the water over a 12-month period showed that there were heavy metals in the water. The levels were high enough to be dangerous to small aquatic life, which in turn effects the larger aquatic life. Surprisingly, even after flooding occurred in the area, the level of heavy metals was still high,” Dr Sutherland advised.

“Now that life has shifted to COVID-normal we hope to make significant progress on the mental health work that was delayed due to the pandemic,” Dr Sutherland said.

Other ANU research presented at the congress included Professor Christopher Nolan’s Mother and Child 2020 project (presented by Ms Amanda Wingett and Professor Christine Phillips) and a video-presentation by Dr Emily McCloud and Professor Iain Walker.