Racism
is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against people from another race,
due to the belief that one’s own race is superior” (Oxford Dictionary).
However, in contemporary Australian society today, these beliefs are deeply
engrained within our social structures.

 

Whilst racism against Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islanders remains a highly debated topic, among both
politicians and government and everyday Australians, little has been done to
combat or investigate this issue further. Australia still lacks focussed and
specialised research and funding in relation to Indigenous health policies. This
essay will focus on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of Indigenous
Australians, and the systematic racism that Aboriginal Australians face when
attempting to access healthcare within Australian society.

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Racism
has always been prevalent within Australian society, and it would be remiss to
suggest that racist attitudes have been newly formed in contemporary Australian
life.  Hollinsworth (2006) provided an
all-inclusive account of racism in Australia, ranging from the 1770 European
invasion to the present. This report details periods of assimilation,
dispossession, and institutionalised racism. Australians have recognised that
this racist culture is a part of the history of our country, and have been
moving forward in regards to not only identifying obvious racism, but also
attempting to identify and prevent unconscious bias that people of colour
within our society may face on an almost daily basis.

 

The
term Indigenous Australians refers to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander people within the Australian population. Positive changes in history
have been made in regards to the Indigenous population, including granting Aboriginal
Australians the right to vote in elections in 1962, and the 1967 Referendum to
include Aboriginal Australians in the Census and official population estimates.
However, as Mellor (2003, pg. 474) pointed out, “it seems that no Aboriginal
Australian can ever be an Australian in the same sense as a White Australian”
and this remains true to some extent today.

 

Indigenous
people remain one of the most marginalised groups in Australian society today, and
are still subject to ongoing racism, even in the changing racial climate of the
21st century. This racism is evident when assessing experiences that
Indigenous people experience in relation to both their mental and physical
health and wellbeing.

 

Indigenous
Australians remain a minority in Australia, making them vulnerable to higher
levels of racism, particularly in regards to their health and wellbeing.
Currently making up only 3% of the Australian population (Australian Bureau of
Statistics, 2011), Indigenous members of contemporary Australian society are
exposed to greater stress and harm factors, which can lead to poor mental and
physical health. These factors include higher levels of incarceration and
unemployment, in addition to lower income levels, sub-standard housing, and
shorter life expectancies than non-Indigenous Australians.

 

While
doctors practising medicine in Australia do not have the right to refuse
medical treatment based on the level of private health insurance (Bastos, Harnois, & Paradies, 2017), Indigenous Australians still face a lack of
specialised treatment in Australia. This is due to the lack of research and
data available in order to create and fund the programs needed to cater
directly to the Indigenous population of Australia.

 

There
is a distinct lack of fully-funded programs that focus on Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander communities, and how healthcare should be adapted to suit their
cherished and ancient culture and heritage. Failing to direct research
resources and funding toward projects that aim to focus on the Indigenous way
of life in Australia can cause further harm to the population who would benefit
the most from it. The failure to research, fund, and implement specialised and
appropriate programs and care options for Indigenous Australians may simply be
an oversight, rather than a direct attempt to exclude and ostracise a portion
of society. Regardless, the absence of research and programs is a clear
indicator of the racism that affects Indigenous people within society, and may
further explain the concerning health statistics in among Aboriginals and
Torres Straight Islanders.

 

Paradies,
Harris & Anderson (2008) state that there are very few published studies
that examine the experience of racism and mental health in an urban setting.
This lack of research concerning Indigenous experiences within the healthcare
sector may contribute to how Indigenous Australians feel when dealing with
health issues, and seeking assistance for these issues from external sources,
such as doctors and other healthcare services. While there have been requests
for further focused study to be undertaken that considers the relationship
health and racism (Ziersch, Gallaher, Baum & Bentley, 2011)
these studies have yet
to eventuate.

 

Only
recently has there been an effort to reduce the lack of research focused on the
association between racism and Aboriginal Australians’ experiences in regards
to health and wellbeing in Australian society. Prior to this recent shift,
there has been a lack of studies which examine “the ways in which racial
discrimination affects perceived access to health care” (Bastos, et al. 2017) which
leads to difficulty in accurately relating to issues that may only be prevalent
in Australia. These recent studies have shown that Aboriginals and Torres
Strait Islanders in Australia experience a disproportionate level of racism in
relation to their health.

 

There
remains a life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous
Australians, as reported in the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantages: Key
Indicators 2016 report, with 9.6 years and 9.5 years for males and females
respectively in Australia. The report also shows that the proportion of adults
reporting high levels of psychological distress increased from 27% in 2004-2005
to 33% in 2014-2015. The report also showed that hospitalisations among
Aboriginal Australians for self-harm has increased by 56% over this period. The
seriousness of these reported statistics speak for themselves, and further
demonstrate the high rate of medical issues that those within the Indigenous
community in Australia face on a regular basis.

 

Emotional
upsets were reported 2.6 times as often by Aboriginal respondents, in
comparison to non-Aboriginal respondents in a recent study (Larson, Gillies, Howard & Coffin, 2007) that
investigated racial treatment within the healthcare sector. The same study
found that physical symptoms of stress were also reported 5 times more often in
Aboriginal respondents. Brondolo et al. (2009) found that while support from
others in the community helped to alleviate some of the stress and mental
anguish of experiencing racism, it could also have a damaging effect and lead
to detrimental behaviours in regards to health. There is evidence of this in
the 2016 Report for Disadvantages, which showed that Indigenous adults who
reported substance abuse had increased to 31%, from 23% in previous years.

Bastos et al. (2017) found that when respondents to a survey felt they were
experiencing racism, it was a significant predictor of perceived access to
health care. Given the extreme levels of self-harm and psychological distress
among the Indigenous community, it is clear that more needs to be done to
prevent the first inhabitants of Australia from feeling ostracised further.

(Priest, Paradies, Stewart, & Luke, 2011) found that
racism was experienced by 52.3% of participants in a study focused on mental
health in Indigenous Australians. These results further showed that of those
who experienced racism, there was a statistically significant association
between racism and depression and general health.  If Indigenous people feel they are unable to
seek support from those around them, and experience racism or negative
attitudes when attempting to seek help from medical professionals, this
exclusion may lead them to take part in destructive coping mechanisms, further
damaging their health in the long run.

 

In
conclusion, it is evident that there is a strong association in contemporary
Australian life between racism against Aboriginal Australians and health care.
Racism is an important determinant of mental and physical health for minority
populations (Paradies & Cunningham, 2010) and therefore requires dedicated
research and funding in order to close the health gap that exists between
Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. As a contemporary society that bases
its values in equality and fairness, Australians need to combat racism in all
of the many forms it may take in the community. This includes ensuring that
Indigenous Australians feel safe and supported when seeking assistance in
regards to their health, and ensuring that unconscious bias does not affect
their treatment.