We can’t let our young people despair and lose hope, says Calma

Bullying, emotional abuse, depression, drugs, alcohol, gambling, homelessness and suicide.

These are just some of the disturbing issues young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are facing at a higher level than other young Australians, a new study released today has found.

The report by Mission Australia has prompted the leading charity to call for an urgent overhaul of Australia’s education, health and housing systems for Indigenous Australians.

Professor Tom Calma, an Aboriginal elder, co-chair of Reconciliation Australia and chancellor of the University of Canberra, said the report pointed to serious disadvantages faced by young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Mission Australia chief executive Catherine Yeomans said Australia needed to find a better way of working with Indigenous youth.

She said “the overall picture painted is of a cohort of marginalised young people facing some really complex problems without the support they need”.

The report found:

  • Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were unhappier than other youths, with one in 10 males, or 10 percent, of those surveyed and 4.8 percent of females indicating their happiness level was zero.
  • A quarter of the young Indigenous people had high levels of concern about suicide.
  • Indigenous youths were more likely to have spent time away from home because they felt they couldn’t return — three in 10, compared to one in eight among non-Indigenous youths. One in five said they had spent more than six months away from home each time.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youths were more likely to nominate homelessness and housing as an important issue facing Australia today.
  • Getting a job was more important to young Indigenous people. They were less likely to be in paid employment, but more likely to be looking for work.

The report was based on the responses of 18,727 young people aged 15 to 19 last year. Of those, 1,162 identified as being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Professor Calma said although the study wasn’t a representative sample, it provided important insights.

He said future studies needed to take in the views of youths in remote areas where overcrowding was at crisis levels.

He said over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in out-of-home care and juvenile justice institutions was a “national shame and leading contributors to homelessness”.

The statistics on unhappiness were “terrible”.

“As a nation we cannot let our young people despair and lose hope,” he said.

“The higher rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people taking their life is widely reported.

“Our young people have to see they have a future and they need access to mental health and alcohol and drug services and suicide prevention programs and vulnerable communities must be empowered and supported to lead their own recovery.”

Professor Calma said youths, elders and organisations all needed to be involved in the programs and Australian society needed to work towards a reconciled and equal country.

“If we are serious about Closing the Gap we need to get serious about providing equal opportunities for our young people,” he said. “We need to recognise the history of colonisation, dispossession, removals and trauma and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people to create a brighter future.”

Ms Yeomans said the report showed Australia was failing young Indigenous people “with too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people falling through the cracks”.

“This is not a sustainable way for us to proceed as a nation and to me it suggests a divided society,” she said.

She said Indigenous people were over represented among Australia’s homeless. Overcrowded living conditions also made it difficult for some young people to go to school or work.

Mission Australia called for social changes in key areas. It said overcrowding should be a priority and 4,200 new Aboriginal-owned and controlled homes were needed in remote communities and regional centres.

Homelessness programs also needed to be properly funded.

Suicide prevention programs needed to be tailored to the needs of whole communities and the federal government should invest in building up Aboriginal-controlled health organisations, it said.

Aboriginal community-controlled organisations should also be funded to address domestic and family violence.

Wendy Caccetta

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