Taking back control – 12 year study of path to better Aboriginal health

Posted on March 20, 2014

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Dr Whiteside: detailed insights into Aboriginal people’s own efforts for change.

Dr Whiteside: detailed insights into Aboriginal people’s own efforts for change.

Australia has tried for almost a decade to ‘close the gap’. Yet Aboriginal Australians still suffer more than double the disease burden of the total population – with most health problems caused by preventable chronic disease.

A new book not only again brings this disturbing state of affairs into sharp focus – but also aims to help empower more Aboriginal Australians to take control of their own health and lives. Based on 12 years of nation-wide research into Aboriginal people’s own efforts, it’s a call for action to professionals, policy makers and researchers.

The book was written by Dr Mary Whiteside, lecturer in Social Work and Social Policy at La Trobe University, with Professor Komla Tsey, Professor Yvonne Cadet-James and Dr Janya McCalman from James Cook University. The four authors have extensive experience in Aboriginal health program development and research.

Titled Promoting Aboriginal Health: The Family Wellbeing Empowerment Approach, it was launched today at the Lowitja Congress, the Lowitja Institute’s biennial conference, at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne.

Dr Whiteside, third from left, with co-authors and delegates at this week’s Lowitja Congress in Melbourne.

Dr Whiteside says ‘There’s a dire lack of research on what the concept of empowerment means in practice – and how people can be supported to make choices to participate fully in education, work and look after their health.

‘This book provides detailed insights into Aboriginal people’s own efforts for change’.

She says the Family Wellbeing program, developed by Aboriginal Australians, provides a powerful example. ‘It promotes analytical skills that help participants confront complex problems through spirituality, problem solving and conflict resolution techniques.’

The program has involved more than 3,300 people across Australia, and the book details how it has enhanced their capacity to take control of their lives and make healthy changes for themselves and their families.

Program participants have provided feedback such as: ‘Now I can love my wife and children because I love myself’; ‘I see life has opportunities and choices’; ‘Now I don’t drink that much, I’ve got money in the house’.

‘Agency in our own lives’

The Lowitja Institute is Australia’s National Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research, and incorporates the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health. It has been a long-standing supporter of research into the Family Wellbeing program.

The Institute’s Chairperson, Dr Pat Anderson says, ‘As Aboriginal people we need to have a sense of agency in our lives, that we are not stray leaves blowing about in the wind. In a word, we need empowerment.’

Despite gaps in health, education and employment, she says Aboriginal Australians are making remarkable efforts to empower themselves. ‘To move forward we need to identify what people are already doing, mobilize public policy to enable these efforts and build evidence for what actually works. Towards this end the Lowitja Institute is pleased to support the launch of this important book.’