Vision statements: Is it time for an apology to Indigenous peoples for past wrongs by our professions?

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Is it time for the nursing and midwifery professions to reflect on our historical involvement in the subjugation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and consider whether we owe a statement of regret for our failures as part of the wider healthcare system to respond to the needs of Aboriginal Australians?

Do formal apologies mean anything?

We welcome your input on this fundamental issue for Australians – and especially input from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses and midwives.

In September 2016, the Australian Psychological Society issued a formal apology to Indigenous Australians for their past failure as a profession to respond to the needs of Aboriginal patients.

In the past, the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association and the ANMF more broadly have issued statements of apology for our professions’ involvement in the practices associated with the forced adoption of babies from the 1950s to 1980s. In doing so we recognised that while those nurses and midwives were working under direction, it was often they who took the babies away from mothers who had been forced, pressured and coerced into relinquishing their children and we apologised for and acknowledged the pain these mothers, fathers and children had experienced in their lives as a result.

Following the recent commendable move by the Australian Psychological Society, is it now time for the nursing and midwifery professions to reflect on our historical involvement as healthcare providers in the subjugation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and consider whether we owe a similar statement of regret for our failures as part of the wider healthcare system to respond to the needs of Aboriginal Australians?

But firstly, do such apologies mean anything?

Professor Alan Rosen AO (a non-indigenous psychiatrist) makes a cogent argument for an apology by the Australian mental health professions to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:

The recent apology by the Australian Psychological Society to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is of profound national and international significance.

The APS is believed to be the first mental health professional representative body in the world to endorse and adopt such a specific apology to indigenous peoples for what was done to them by the profession as part of, or in the name of, mental health/psychological assessment, treatment and care.

The APS Board also substantially adopted the recommendation of its Indigenous Psychologists’ Advisory Group (IPAG), whose Indigenous and non-Indigenous members crafted this apology together. This sets a fine precedent.

As some other Australian mental health professional bodies are still considering whether to make such an apology, it is to be hoped that the APS has set a new trend. The APS has provided a robust example of how to do it well and in a way that it is more likely to be considered to be sincere and acceptable by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Historically, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have suffered much more incarceration, inappropriate diagnoses and treatments and more control than care in the hands of mental health professionals, facilities and institutions.

This is also true for all First Nations peoples, globally.

Professor Rosen argues that such apologies demonstrate concern for possible historical wrongs, either deliberate or unwitting, by professionals and institutions and the enduring mental health effects of colonialism. The Croakey.org article goes on to describe the purposes and goals of an apology, why they are worth doing and proposes a template.

So, just as we have recognised and apologised for the role our professions played in forced adoptions, is it now time to examine and take responsibility for our professions’ historical contribution to undermining Indigenous Australians’ social and emotional health and wellbeing?

Janine Mohamed (right), CEO of the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM), argues we should.

Between 1908 and 1919, hundreds of Aboriginal patients were incarcerated in the Lock Hospitals off the coast of Carnarvon, with more than 150 people dying there. The West Australian government established the hospitals for the treatment of Aboriginal people with sexually transmitted infections, but there remains considerable doubt as to the accuracy of such diagnoses – many of which were made by police officers.

The Fantome Island Lock Hospital operated in Queensland from 1928-45 under similar arrangements, detaining Aboriginal people with suspected sexually transmitted infections. There was also a lazaret on Fantome Island (1939-73) for segregated treatment of Aboriginal people with Hansen’s disease.

Aboriginal people taken to the hospitals were often forcibly removed from their families and communities and transported in traumatic conditions, in chains and under police guard. There is also evidence of medical experimentation and abuse.

Janine Mohamed writes:

While we ourselves did not work there, the societal beliefs interwoven with the professional theories practised at that time are a legacy we have inherited. Those attitudes and practices remain present within our professional space.

Have we done sufficient work to decolonise ourselves?

Decolonising is a conscious practice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses. It involves recognising the impact of the beliefs and practices of the coloniser on ourselves at a personal and professional level, then disavowing ourselves from them. We talk about this in CATSINaM with our Members. We invite our non-Indigenous colleagues to engage in this self-reflective conversation through many aspects of our work.

The NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association has embarked on the process of developing a Reconciliation Action Plan. As a first step, over coming months we will be working on developing a more thorough understanding of how historical practices have affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our care.

We welcome feedback, especially from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues.

1 COMMENT

  1. We have a very active Aboriginal Liason Officer at our hospital. I think people in this position would be great sources for beginning this conversation. I think that we still have some way to go in making our hospitals more inviting for minorities & especially the original descendants of this continent. It might be too early for an apology as I’m not convinced that we have accepted a culture change in our profession yet. Personally I think I need more exposure to our ongoing treatment of minorities to become a better nurse. I have tried many times to enrol in the NSW HEALTH Respecting The Difference Face to Face course via HETI, but have been told that leave to attend has been denied.

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