A survey of 755 Aboriginal people in four Victorian localities has found they experience extraordinarily high levels of racism, with at least 97 per cent having been targets of verbal or physical abuse, or discriminatory behaviour in the past 12 months.
The survey by the University of Melbourne, VicHealth, Lowitja Institute, and beyondblue, announced at Congress Lowitja 2012 in Melbourne this week, found up to 70 per cent of those surveyed had been targets of eight or more racist incidents during the past year.
In the survey: Mental health impacts of racial discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities , participants in two metropolitan and two rural localities across Victoria were more likely to score higher on the Kessler scale for psychological distress as they experienced more incidents of racism. Half reported high or very high levels of psychological distress.
Lead researcher from the University of Melbourne, Associate Margaret Kelaher, Deputy Director, Centre for Health Policy, Programs and Economics in the School of Population Health, said: "Almost every Aboriginal Victorian who participated in this survey had experienced racism and the risk of high or very high levels of psychological distress increased as the volume of racism increased.
"There were almost no coping strategies that could reduce the negative health effects of exposure to racism, so this study really suggests that prevention is likely to be a more effective and efficient public health intervention than simply responding to harmful incidents," she said.
In racist incidents, more than half of the participants had their property vandalised; 92 per cent said they’d been called names or teased; 86 per cent felt ignored; 84 per cent were sworn at or verbally abused; 82 per cent were told they were less intelligent; 67 per cent had been spat on or had something thrown at them and 66 per cent had been told they did not belong.
VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter said the research established a link between racist incidents and poor mental health for Indigenous people, and had strong implications for how we deal with racism in the future.
"VicHealth has undertaken considerable research over the past decade which has built the case for preventing, and responding to, race-based discrimination. This report provides evidence that racism has a serious impact on health and reveals an urgent need to address this issue in Victoria," Ms Rechter said.
beyondblue CEO Kate Carnell AO said discrimination and bullying of any kind, including racism, could have a profound effect on a person’s mental health. ??"Racism is never acceptable," she said.
"Research shows that the suicide rate in Indigenous people is about 70 per cent higher than in non-Indigenous Australians. One third of Indigenous Australians report high to very high levels of psychological distress, which is more than twice the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. Stamping out racism is vital if we want to ensure that all Australians have the best possible chance of achieving good mental health."
Lowitja Institute Chairperson Pat Anderson is not surprised by the findings of the study.
"This research confirms what we already know about the connection between the social and emotional effects of racism and its direct influence on mental health and wellbeing," she said.
"It is important that this information is widely available and openly discussed and we will continue working to build an evidence base about the effects of racism to advocate for change. Racist attitudes and beliefs have consequences and can create long-term harm for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. People can’t thrive if they feel excluded."
VicHealth has funded two Victorian councils to undertake the Localities Embracing and Accepting Diversity (LEAD) Project.
This survey was conducted at the start of a four year pilot to promote positive attitudes and behaviour towards cultural diversity in order to reduce race-based discrimination